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"with Mark Knopfler on guitar"
2012-11-08, Bradley Center, Milwaukee, WI
Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Bob Dylan shows of yesteryear. Some installments are free, some for paid subscribers only. Subscribe here:
A few weeks before Dylan's Milwaukee tour opener (which I wrote about for paid subscribers here), I decided to look up the setlist of his last Milwaukee show. It was in Fall 2019, when he played the same setlist every night. So, to make it more interesting, I looked up the last Milwaukee show before he began his static-setlists era. That show took place at the Bradley Center on November 8, 2012. And, when I pulled up that setlist, one parenthetical appeared after four songs: "(with Mark Knopfler on guitar)."
Having been slightly checked out from Bobworld in the early 2010s, the parenthetical surprised me. I vaguely remember hearing Knopfler had guested during Bob's sets when he was opening for him, but I assumed it was just a "Like a Rolling Stone" finale or something. Nope. This was early in the show, four full songs, including some non-obvious choices: "Girl Of The North Country," "Things Have Changed," "Tangled Up in Blue," "Million Miles."
I started clicking around other fall 2012 setlists. Turns out, Knopfler guested a lot, and on a wide variety of songs. Moreover, he did the same thing in 2011, on their joint tour in Europe. Over the course of the two tours, they played 21 different songs together. Some of those 21 they did just once; some they did a dozen times. (Interestingly, out of all 21, only one was a song Knopfler recorded with Dylan on their two albums together: Infidels outtake “Blind Willie McTell.”) These weren’t vocal duets - Mark stepped up to the microphone exactly once - but Dylan performances with Knopfler adding guitar assists.
I'm a pretty big Dire Straits and Knopfler fan, so I decided to listen to all their 2010s songs together. Luckily, Knopfler’s superfans appear to be as obsessive as Dylan’s, and someone compiled one version of each song they played into two compilations, titled Don't You Dare Miss It 2011 and …2012 (which you can download at the bottom).
The first thing you notice is that Mark is not exactly going all "Sultans of Swing" here. Then again, I've seen him in concert twice, and my sense is it's been years since he went all "Sultans of Swing" over his own material either. Accompanying Dylan, he gets in wonderful little melodic licks at the ends of vocal lines, and some short solos, but is kept on a tight leash. That may be where he prefers to stay anyway.
You also can't trust the audio alone. On some songs there are four guitarists, which makes identifying who's playing what tricky. At one point early on, I was listening to something and thinking, "Man, Mark sounds rougher than usual here." Then I pulled up a video and realized it was actually Bob playing. By Knopfler standards, it felt sloppy, but by Dylan guitar-solo standards it was practically Hendrix!
Here's a good clip of the four-guitar band in action:
That pretty-good Bob guitar solo I heard isn't really an outlier. On some level, Bob taking guitar solos when standing in between Mark Knopfler and Charlie Sexton feels like me playing basketball with Jordan and Pippen and being like, "Hang back fellas, I got this." But Knopfler's presence did seem to inspire Bob to raise his game. Earlier this year, I speculated that Dylan once considered Dire Straits to be his backing band. Whether that was true or not, the Straits frontman still seems to bring out the best in Bob all these years later. In an era when Bob primarily stuck to the keyboard on stage, he played guitar more when Mark was standing next to him.
But Mark's presence is more than a mere muse. Even without ripping guitar-hero solos, he makes his presence felt through classic Knopfler licks: Melodic, inventive, a new bit of added color after every line of singing. In that way, at least, his playing actually does resemble "Sultans of Swing." When I was in college, I tried to learn to play that song on guitar. At the end of every single line of every single verse, Knopfler plays a totally different, amazing lick. Each one took me like an hour to learn - and if you watch him do it live, he looks like he's barely trying. He does a lot of that with Bob, even without the big solos.
For a specific example, just as I was writing that last paragraph, I had "Things Have Changed" playing from the November 20, 2012 show in Washington DC. Listen to Knopfler’s little lick at 3:06, after “falling in love with the first woman I meet”:
I chose that example at random, but it’s a perfect example of what he's bringing. I bet that quick line would take a new guitarist to learn too, and Knopfler’s just tossing it off one night without a second thought.
Here’s another good example, from the year before: "Man in the Long Black Coat" on Halloween 2011 in Hamburg, Germany. Listen to the intro. It's just 15 seconds or so, but Knopfler paints in new shades of melody without stepping on the rest of the band’s toes.
And when he does get a chance to solo, even a little, he makes it count. None of these will make any "100 Insane Guitar Solos That Will Melt Your Face Off" lists or anything - they're too short, too tasteful - but few guitarists have as good an ear for melody. Practically every solo he plays, all apparently improvised on the spot, could form the melodic basis of a whole new song. Two examples below: "John Brown" from October 25 2011 in Mannheim, Germany (brief solos at 1:27, 3:02, and 3:51) and "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" from November 20, 2011 in London, which shines despite competing with Bob's goofy circus organ (solo at 3:06, and then what sounds like maybe a combo with Sexton at 4:37).
As mentioned earlier, out of all those songs they played across two years, Mark stepped to the microphone exactly once. It was the final song of the final night of their 2011 tour. And the choice was somewhat clichéd: "Forever Young." But the way they performed it was hardly going-through-the-motions. Bob takes the first verse, Mark takes the second (plus a solo), then they sing together on the third. There's also a wonderful guitar solo, then a guitar-and-harmonica outro. I recently said the Shadow Kingdom "Forever Young" was probably my favorite live version ever. It probably still is, but this one's close (though aforementioned circus organ does knock it down a peg).
I'll leave you with one more video, which I dug up on an old Knopfler-fan Google Drive and uploaded to YouTube, of their four songs together in Padova 2011. Zoomed in close and focused often on Knopfler, it's a good window into watching what he brings.
PS. Here's the full list of different songs Knopfler played with Dylan in 2011 and 2012 (some once, some many times), all of which are on the below Don’t You Dare Miss It comps:
"Beyond Here Lies Nothin'"
"Blind Willie McTell"
"Boots of Spanish Leather"
"Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"
"Girl From the North Country"
"It Ain't Me, Babe"
"It's All Over Now Baby Blue"
"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"
"The Levee's Gonna Break"
"Man in the Long Black Coat"
"Rollin' and Tumblin'"
"Tangled Up in Blue"
"Things Have Changed"
"Tryin' to Get to Heaven"
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