Arriving in 1978 with the cartwheeling, finger-picked solo to “Sultans of Swing,” Mark Knopfler emerged as the outsider guitar hero of the New Wave era and an unlikely MTV star in the ‘80s. That status was fueled by the landslide success of 1985’s “Brothers in Arms” and chart-topping rocker “Money for Nothing.” A restless musician, Knopfler strayed during the ‘80s to create evocative soundtracks for films Local Hero and The Princess Bride, in addition to production work for Bob Dylan. Following six albums with Dire Straits, Knopfler commenced solo work with 1996’s “Golden Heart.”
Despite making his name among the brash rockers, Knopfler’s collaborations made his love for roots, folk, and country music plain. Evidence included country-rock side project the Notting Hillbillies, the “Neck and Neck” album with pal and hero Chet Atkins, and “All the Roadrunning” with Emmylou Harris.
2018’s “Down the Road Wherever” is Knopfler’s ninth solo LP, a masterful album of mellow rock with threads to European folk and character-driven storytelling. Having turned 70 this month, Knopfler’s yarn-spinning abilities have evolved alongside his deft touch. The truth is, both skills were evident on Dire Straits’ debut and present in favorites like “Romeo and Juliet.” Knopfler’s rough-hewn singing remains unwaveringly calm and conversational, suggesting fireside tales told late into the night.
“Matchstick Man” reshapes a picturesque memory, describing an abandoned young hitchhiker on Christmas Day and the big dreams that sustained him through any misadventure. “My Bacon Roll” sketches a lost soul who found himself ill-fitted for the workaday world and corporate team-building exercises, whiling away his fading years at the local diner. “Nobody’s Child” and “Trapper Man” both describe rustic loners. One goes bad, while the other finds inner strength even as others profit from his labor.
Knopfler’s last visit to Chicago packed the Chicago Theatre in 2015. The guitarist returns on Sunday with his longtime band, a sprawling 10-piece ensemble including Dire Straits alumnus Guy Fletcher on keyboards. Other veteran sidemen helping bring life to Knopfler’s Scottish folk roots are Mike McGoldrick on whistle and flute, and John McCusker on fiddle and cittern. New additions include saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock and trumpeter Tom Walsh.
Knopfler’s latest work features the enviable tone of sweet solos during the wanderlust-filled “One Song at a Time,” and Ry Cooder-styled slide guitar quoting “You’ll Never Walk Alone” during blues shuffle “Just a Boy Away from Home.” Knopfler explores other musical realms with free-spirited delight. The muted jazz of “Slow Learner” highlights Fletcher’s piano and Walsh’s trumpet. The grouchy wit of “Heavy Up” glides along an island rhythm. “Nobody Does That” echoes Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” with wah-wah guitar, clavinet and sharp horns.
Knopfler’s loyal audience knows not to expect nostalgia for Dire Straits’ glory days, even though many lyrics make fond remembrance of young and innocent days. However, listeners will experience everyday scenes rendered as romantic epics, led by a master craftsman who knows when to cease using mere words and let his guitar carry the tale.
* Mark Knopfler and Band, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 1, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. $200+ (all ages); ticketmaster.com.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.