There is a mountain of songs out there today that us ‘people of a certain age’ have heard so many times we could sing them pretty well in our sleep. Likewise there must be many tunes that any reasonably talented musician of that same ‘certain age’ could play in his/her sleep. That is most certainly true of ‘Money for Nothing’, ‘Brothers in Arms’, and pub-rock classic ‘Sultans of Swing‘. As a founder member of the mega-selling Dire Straits John Illsley should be able to play the old hits in his sleep by now – but does he send the audience to sleep too? I headed to the Harmonie recently to find out.
It’s a Monday and Jazz Fest has drawn a lot of interest and money this week, the consequence is that around 200 people are in the hall when John Illsley and band kick off their set with one of those many Dire Straits classics – ‘Walk of Life’. “A shame so few are here” mused a lady next to me. Maybe the 34 Euro tickets put a few off I suggest. “Of course it’s not cheap, but we’re seeing an original and not a coverband” was her reply. I thought of replying that The Stones without Jagger or The Who without Daltrey would not be The Stones or the Who. The Straits without Knopfler are not… well you get my drift.
Illsley to his credit does not claim to be Dire Straits. In fact the statement on posters and flyers proclaiming that the show would feature ‘John Illsley of Dire Straits AND songs from his new Album’ may well have even put people off of coming out. People want to hear the hits. In fact I count only five songs this evening from the new release ‘Long Shadows’ as opposed to more than a dozen of those songs I could sing in my sleep.
Perhaps that’s the problem for a lot of tonight’s show. Guitarists Paul Stacey and Robbie Macintosh are also of ‘a certain age’ like me. Of the two men Macintosh manages to impress despite the familiarity. Not surprisingly since he has been ‘around’ classic pop songs onstage for a large chunk of his career. A replacement for James Honeyman-Scott in The Pretenders his CV includes appearances with many a Rock legend, most notably a lengthy stint with Paul McCartney. I probably last saw him play live sometime in the distant past with Chrissie Hynde at Portsmouth Guildhall. Whenever Macintosh takes over the tune there’s an undeniable edge to the chocolate smooth coating that most Dire Straits hits are coated with – especially when he adds a slide to his left hand ring finger.
Otherwise though heads are generally down apart from the odd smile from one player to another that seems as if it’s been arranged to ensure no-one falls asleep. The music would very likely continue if they did – from hands that automatically know where and when to go. Paul Stacey keeps his head firmly down stage right, hidden under the peak of his baseball cap. Jess Greenfield is unaccountably stage front next to Illsley even though she is a backing singer for everything except the intro to ‘Money for Nothing’, Stuart Ross on drums and Steve Smith on keys have the look of people spending another day at the office.
John Illsley himself of course is the man on whom our expectations are heaped, and he repays the expectancy by at least throwing some poses – bass raised vertically to end a song, or legs apart to lean into the beat. The first set of the evening is played out then professionally and with the knowledge that classics like ‘Private Investigations’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘Sultans of Swing’ are tunes so strong that the music itself carries it through. Illsley’s voice a little deeper than Knopfler’s but with enough of that London accent to make things authentic Dire Straits.
I decide that maybe a change of location will make a difference for part two and head for the balcony.
The higher perspective does indeed seem to make a difference. There are still a long line of classics to be got through, but everyone seems finally to be actually enjoying playing them. For starters there is a bit of energy in the songs themselves. ‘Calling Elvis’ is a lively number, as are ‘Tunnel of Love’ and ‘Money for Nothing’. Even the quieter moments seem more passionate. ‘On every street’ suits the darker tone of Illsley’s voice perfectly and Macintosh’s guitar possibly shimmers during the perfectly timed solos.
‘Brothers in Arms’ is of course a super classic of Soft Rock to encore with. ‘The Bug’ from the final Straits Album isn’t really encore material outside of it’s up-tempo melody and not one to end on – which thankfully keen applause allows them to put right. A quick addition of ‘Where do you think you’re Going’ to finish the set-list and indeed the evening is therefore welcome.
So there we are. I’m left in two minds about the evening as befits an evening that seemed split into two halves. On the one hand it would have been great to have heard more of the new Illsley disc. Familiarity did indeed breed contempt for me on the evening (maybe not contempt, but definitely disinterest at times). On the other hand though, the new material, even good numbers like ‘Ship of Fools’ with it’s tip at the present UK government and ‘Long Shadow’ – dedicated to Prince “who cast a very big musical shadow” (Illsley) sounded too much like Dire Straits album cuts of old and couldn’t hope to compete with those standards. There is too something undeniably comforting about those old classics, summed up very well ironically in ‘Comes Around Again’ on Illsley’s new release:
“One things for sure, It comes around again.
I’m pretty sure, You’ll always need a friend.
Takes a little time, To change the rules of the game.
It’s not over till it’s over, It comes around again”
There’s a vacuum in good pop music these days and until it’s filled old friends like ‘Brothers in Arms’ and ‘Sultans of Swing’ will always be very welcome.