Midway through a two-hour concert with his 10-piece band at ACL Live on Saturday, Mark Knopfler paused for a reflective introduction to “Matchstick Men,” the last song on his 2018 album “Down the Road Wherever.” Remembering a Christmas Day 50 years ago when he hitchhiked home across Great Britain with his guitar after a gig the night before, Knopfler told the story as if it was yesterday. “It was a beautiful day,” he said, recalling the snow-covered landscape and the sun beaming across a crisp blue sky. “I had a clear idea of what I’d chosen to do with my life.”
It was perhaps a bittersweet realization at the time, an acknowledgment of both the beauty and the lonesomeness of the traveling musician’s life. Knopfler turned 70 last month, and if he’s growing a little nostalgic in his autumn years, he’s earned the long look back. As he noted earlier in the evening, when he first visited Austin decades ago — on a Greyhound bus trip, and later with his band Dire Straits — “I was just a young dude. And now I feel like I really ought to retire. But then I think, what could be better than this?”
A full house at ACL Live — the show sold out months in advance, even going up against the Texas-LSU football game across town — couldn’t have agreed more. They hung on his every lyrical turn of phrase and ringing guitar solo, appreciating songs from across his three-decade solo career even as they eagerly awaited the few favorites he tossed out from his 1970s-80s heyday with Dire Straits.
Of the latter, the early-’80s FM radio staple “Romeo and Juliet” was an early-set highlight, along with “Once Upon a Time in the West” from 1979’s “Communique.” The title track to the band’s 1991 finale, “On Every Street,” came later, before the mid-’80s smash hit “Money for Nothing” brought nearly everyone to their feet in the encore.
But it was the post-Straits material that really showed the full range of what Knopfler and his band can do. “Matchstick Men” and the more jazz-inflected “My Bacon Roll” came from the new record, but he worked in songs from most of his nine solo studio albums. “Corned Beef City,” from 2012’s “Privateering,” rolled along with an easygoing upbeat tempo; “Postcards From Paraguay” from 2004’s “Shangri-La,” drew upon the lively Latin rhythms its title suggets; “Done with Bonaparte,” from 1996’s “Golden Heart,” brought out the Celtic-folk flair of Knopfler’s homeland (born in Scotland, he was raised in northern England); and “Speedway to Nazareth,” from 2000’s “Sailing to Philadelphia,” closed the main set with hard-rocking intensity.
None of this would be possible without the band, Knopfler happily acknwoledged in mid-set introductions that ran 10 minutes. For all the acclaim he receives as a guitar great, Knopfler noted that he plays one instrument, while his band members collectively play 49. Right-hand man Richard Bennett starred on guitar, bouzouki and more all night, along with Guy Fletcher, a keyboardist and guitarist whose tenure stretches back to the Dire Straits days. Horn players Tom Walsh and Graeme Blevins had plenty of opportunities to shine, often stepping out from from their mid-stage riser for solos. Behind them, drummer Ian Thomas and percussionist Danny Cummings excelled at all manner of beats and tempos, with Cummings adding a duet vocal role on “Sailing to Philadelphia.” Bassist Glenn Worf shared space at stage right with multi-instrumentalist ringers Michael McGoldrick and John McCusker, while keyboardist Jim Cox merged rhythms and melodies in the corner behind them.
Saturday’s set was about half the same, half different from Knopfler’s 2015 ACL Live concert, his first appearance here since a 1985 show with Dire Straits. Both shows closed with the instrumental “Going Home” theme from the 1983 film “Local Hero,” and fittingly so: While Knopfler is also a keen wordsmith, his gift first and foremost is an ear for majestic and magnificent sonic explorations. Filling the hall with an 11-musicians-strong wall of sound on “Going Home,” Knopfler and his band went out with a glorious flourish, leaving the crowd hoping his retirement won’t come any time soon.
1. Why Aye Man
2. Corned Beef City
3. Sailing to Philadelphia
4. Once Upon a Time in the West
5. Romeo and Juliet
6. My Bacon Roll
7. Matchstick Man
8. Done With Bonaparte
9. Heart Full of Holes
10. Your Latest Trick
11. Postcards From Paraguay
12. On Every Street
13. Speedway at Nazareth
14. Money for Nothing
15. Going Home (“Local Hero” theme)