Rock in Rococo

A concert by Mark Knopfler and his band, seen April 21 in Kansas City, promoting his album Get Lucky, was tremendous. If you live within 250 miles (the distance from Fayetteville, as it happens) and have some extra 20s for tickets, try to see it; otherwise listen to the record. Though usually featuring electric instruments, songs both live and on the disc have an acoustic feel. Despite being a rock band, the rhythms and sense of Scottish (Gaelic?) and other British folk traditions are honored. You bet, the Dire Straits founder provided a generous “Sultans of Swing” around the midpoint of the two-and-a-quarter-hour, single-set show.

That is the review, 110 words. That’s all any show write-up need be. Just like news stories, where what’s new is just a paragraph and the rest is background, context and explanation. The latter, you learn in broadcast news writing, can be reduced to one or two clauses. Similarly in critiques, there’s the opinion then ruminations. Writers sometimes hide, disguise or disperse the take in the introspection, not always on purpose. With an opinion and its big caboose, readers of reviews want one of two things: 1) Advice on whether to see the show or get the book, album or download, or 2) They were there as well and the write-up serves as a souvenir and an affirmation or argument about the endeavor.

Ruminations if halfway decent are not fluff. Mediocre ones may be padding or ego expressions, yet even those can be fun if the writer is any good. Great supporting comments in a review are what make Criticism, capitalized, literature. At the least, they’re useful. The best way to stay culturally informed, I am convinced, is to read good book reviews and skip the books, except those few that grab you.

The Knopfler contemplations are below. Useful, entertaining or egocentric blogging? I don’t know. What I do know is when I see a a great concert or play or read a solid book, my mind wanders. I follow it and maybe take notes. In downtown Kansas City, I scribbled on an index card in the dark and it’s legible enough: There’s a dead trumpeter staggering through Fort Smith and how greed trashes a restored theater.

* * *

At about the third song of Knopfler’s mellow show sent my reverie to seeing Harry James when I was a young teen, around 1972. Yes, I’m delving back, again, to Fort Smith memories.

Trumpeter James was a superstar bandleader beginning in the late 1930s. He was the first major frontman to hire a young Frank Sinatra. He married beauties, including Betty Grable. His Big Band music was featured prominently in movies.

In the ’70s, James would be leading what came later to be known as a ghost band, some of the original players, playing faded hits. Except for school music programs, swing then had been near dead for a half-generation — jazz of course still lives with the Big Band sound is kept alive by in-school combos — and James and others still were playing to their peers, my parents’ World War II generation. I was in junior high learning the baritone horn, and his 1939 hit “Ciribirin” was in my low brass primer. At the concert, I’d hear that solo played the way it was meant to sound.

One difference I saw last week was Knopfler was touring to promote his latest album, Get Lucky, comprising not only new material but he wrote all the songs. His is not a rock ghost band. He easily could sell tickets with nothing but the hits of Dire Straights, disbanded a half-generation ago, 1995. And his new material is strong, builds on previous work but doesn’t repeat it.

James, going by my research, had nothing new in ’72. His fans wanted “Ciribiribin,” “Blues in the Night” and “All or Nothing at All.” (His last hit was, indeed, 1955, 17 years before thrilling the Fort Smith Municipal Auditorium.) Some Swing stars did not sit back but pushed. Ellington composed serious works. Bing Crosby had a duet with David Bowie. Sinatra colored the occasional Lennon-McCartney song with his pathos.

I liked the James show OK. It wasn’t my fellow band jocks’ fave Chicago. For brass pop I preferred Blood Sweat & Tears, but at that point I was collecting tapes of classically influenced Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

What was striking that night was my dad. It was one of the few times I saw him angry. He was working as stage manager for the city auditorium and looking forward to seeing one of his idols. Dad brought from backstage an autograph for me, but he was disgusted. Harry James was drinking, he said through gritted teeth. All those times he left the stage while other musicians had solos? That was just to take a belt, from the bottle, he told Mom and me. Dad had little problem with hard drinking, but during a performance it showed disrespect for the audience.

Knopfler, a Scotsman, is said to sip tea with his bandmates on stage. A terrific online tour diary by keyboardist-guitarist Guy Fletcher implies no one on the bus (so to speak) is a saint. Tea with ginger, honey and lemon soothes performers’ throats.

The point is that both times the audience and the stage were filled with gray-hairs. Make mine a salt-and-pepper, and light on the salt. There were a few middle-school boys in Kansas City, most of whom stared intently during solos by Knopfler and his mates, and only crew members between 18 and 40.

Knopfler is 60. Harry James all washed up, his last hit a half-generation earlier, in 1972 was younger, 56. Still, Wikipedia reports James played until nine days before his death in 1983, at age 67, of cancer. I don’t know when Knopfler’s last hit was, because in the era of the Internet and its long tail, what constitutes a hit?

Yet Knopfler’s was not a loud show, even in its rocking moments. Mostly his ballads and other songs felt “unplugged” (a joke of a term, how unplugged is unplugged?). Even Michael McGoldrick’s flutes were wired (was that a silver-colored recorder?). Knopfler in introducing the band called him the best “whistle player” around.

Six other musicians accompanied behind the baritone singer (reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot) and guitar innovator. All eight were virtuosi, and while having plenty of solos really have the comfort and confidence of, well, classical ensemble playing. Which made sense, as most had been with Knopfler at least since 1995, he said, one or two having been in Dire Straits.

They had ready two encores, but the crowd wouldn’t quit cheering, so Knopfler made a shout and a signal to them, and they played a third.

* * *

Kansas City’s The Midland by AMC is an allegedly Art Nouveau theater so the restored walls, ceilings, proscenium arch, fixtures and oh the lobby were spectacular, if you like that curly gilded sort of thing. We were rocking in Rococo; Nouveau actually is more hip. I’m more of a Deco dude myself.

The seating was a surprise. Maybe it’s just me, but who expects to pay real money for tickets (do I dare say? OK , $90), walk in to find 3,000 foiding chairs? They were padded, they abutted one another, and at maybe 22-inch seats, AMC could jam us in what had been probably a 2,000-seat house. (More seats were in the mezzanine and balcony, but those aren’t listed by the box office and evidently comprise corporate box seats, about which more anon.) Yes, with My Beloved to my right, in came to my left a graying ex-linebacker size fellow, polite, who for his wife’s sake and mine kept his arms crossed high. Not that it mattered much: Everyone was squished, and no one could see over or around even short people in the rows ahead.

The floor was not raked (sloping) but tiered. Locally, think of the Rogers Little Theatre. Like that smaller venue, it must be to allow switching to chairs around cocktail tables. Ooh la la, “cabaret seating.” But this night it was three or four rows of seats, a step up and a few more rows of seats, all the way back.

Drinking was encouraged, with so many bars and bartenders. The Midland had a bar across the back of the auditorium, along with kiosks in the basement, main floor and mezzanine lobbies, fattening the theater’s profit. Drink prices were par: $3 for a bottle of water, $8 for a well scotch-and-soda — we shared each.

For all that, the theater’s acoustics were unexpectedly lively, and both MB and me had trouble hearing lyrics and introductions. Mainly, we could not see Knopfler, and rarely the side musicians. Admirably, MB went to an usher, told her we could see nothing and asked if she could help, seats further back OK so long as we could see (we had binoculars). The usher left to talk to a manager, and we were led to a few seats left in the mezzanine. They were way on the side but the view unobstructed, plus up there were real theater seats.

Online the Midland doesn’t mention the upstairs. But as the the two guys in front of us, in button-down dress shirts, fiddled with cells throughout. one of them switching constantly between a iPhone and a Blackberry, I believe they were comped their tickets, with the mezzanine and balcony the equivalent of stadium skyboxes, including having a waitress.

I wouldn’t pay even $10 to sit in this theater again, but MB says she might. The lesson is how to find out stuff like this. The term is good “sight lines,” but don’t expect Ticketmaster to be tell you online. Maybe phone the box office next time.

* * *

During the show, Knopfler announced a song — I didn’t catch the title — and the band that originated it — I hadn’t heard of it — noting he’d have to sing it an octave lower than the original.

“You know, it’s funny, but we get by with a lot. You don’t go buy tickets to see Shakespeare, and the lead actor comes out in front of the curtain and says, ‘Tonight, we think we’ll take a swing at Hamlet.

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