Gig review: Mark Knopfler at First Direct Arena, Leeds

Mark Knopfler. Picture: Derek Hudson
Mark Knopfler. Picture: Derek Hudson
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“It’s lovely to be back in Leeds,” Mark Knopfler genially tells a surprisingly packed out First Direct Arena, to warm applause and the occasional whoop.

A catcall shouts out that he loves the 69-year-old musician and former Dire Straits frontman, to which he gets the wry response amid low chuckles: “I think I love you too.”

His headband may be long gone, but underneath his more careworn frame, it’s clear that he still knows how to pluck out a tune – which he does a moment later, with the lovelorn opening notes of Romeo and Juliet. A collective sight echoes around the amphitheatre as couples sling arms around each other and whisper along with tears in their eyes. It’s a skin-pricklingly beautiful sight.

Despite his association with the city in his formative days – he was an English graduate of the University of Leeds and worked the beat in this very newspaper once upon a time – it is Knopfler’s first return since the opening of Saturday night’s venue. Very much now cut from the elder statesman blues-folk cloth, there are no real verbal allusions made to his time here.

Instead, the Glasgow-born guitarist let his fingers mostly do the talking across a two-hour-plus set that ran the near-breadth of his career, taking in songs on a near 40-year journey stretching back to 1979, with the sort of performance that arguably more than anything played to his strengths as an arranger of melody and mood more than anything.

Here behind latest solo offering Down the Road Wherever – which save for the prettily autobiographical Matchstick Men, prove to be among the softer links in this Celtic-dashed revue – it’s the older cuts that work the best.

Helped by excellent acoustics, Knopfler and his rotating band (no larger than a dozen, no less than half at any given point) effectively oversee a beautiful evening of semi-ceilidh sound, from the sharper-edged works of Why Aye Man and Silvertown Blues through the campfire spectres of Sailing to Philadelphia and Heart Full of Holes.

He only dips sparingly into his Dire Straits days – Your Latest Trick’s moody sax swing remains popular – at least until the end, when he boosts up the amps and synths for a rip-roaring Money for Nothing.

With a third encore of Going Home playing them off into the sunset, there’s little to quibble; Knopfler still knows how to swing it best when he needs to.