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Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - Riffs and Licks
Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris
I saw Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris perform tonight at Radio City, along with shunn and our friend Colin. We sat separately; I had sold off the block of tickets I'd bought and scored a single front-row seat. It was a wonderful show, two unassuming but spectacular musicians sharing a stage, sharing songs, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

They kicked off with a few songs from their collaboration, All the Roadrunning, and then each of them performed a few songs alone. Emmylou did a song off Stumble Into Grace as Knopfler sat on a stool, backing her on acoustic without ever taking his eyes off her. Then he did a couple with her backing her, and then she went offstage. He came back up to the microphone with a glittering steel National, and started fingerpicking the intro to "Romeo and Juliet," which is probably one of my all-time favorite songs. He's clearly not tired of it, or tired of the beautiful melody. At the end, he traded the National for an electric, and played a gorgeous outro that quoted his original solo from the record a few times, but by no means duplicated it.

I have always loved Knopfler's playing, but never focused on it as much as I did tonight. Here's a rich rock star, surrounded by very talented backing musicians ("All multi-instrumentalists, except for me," he said), but doing most of the work himself. His guitar was front-and-center for the entire show; the hired guns didn't play his riffs for him or double him or carry him. And unlike most other rock-star guitar heroes, he didn't showboat. Yes, he took most of the breaks, but when he gave the fiddle player a solo he did it with a grin and took obvious pleasure in the result. And his breaks were just beautiful, melodic and gentle and understated.

I probably should have realized this before now, but he plays with his fingers almost exclusively. He used a flatpick only a few times, for two songs at the end playing lead on what looked like a 50s Strat with a whammy bar, and one other time early in the set, playing open first-position chords on an acoustic guitar, backing Emmylou on a Paul Kennerly song. Most of the time, though, he planted two fingers on the body of the guitar and played with the other three fingers, sometimes doing what amounted to fingerpicking patterns, other times just plucking and pinching strings, or doing a variation of the Carter Scratch, playing bass with his thumb and strumming downwards with the nails of his other two fingers -- he gets a really mean blues sound this way. But using fingers instead of a pick gives his playing tremendous warmth and subtlety.

For the final encore, they came out together, Emmylou with her big blonde Gibson and Knopfler with a red Strat. "I'm going to attempt a Mark Knopfler intro," said Emmylou. "From the Introduction to Folk Music book, volume one. I never made it to Volume Two. Three chords and a hammer-on and you're on your way. I've been making a living from it for thirty years." And she played, alone, the intro to "Why Worry" as Knopfler sang it with her, grinning all the while. He picked up on electric, she kept the picking going, and their harmonies were beautiful.

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12 comments or Leave a comment
From: shunn Date: June 23rd, 2006 05:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Their "Why Worry" duet was just gorgeous. And that number that closed the main set -- holy cow! I believe it was "All the Roadrunning" itself? But the crescendo to which it built blew us away even in the third mezzanine. A really amazing show.

We could see you down front taking pictures with your phone!
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: June 23rd, 2006 02:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
If I had read this beforehand, I would have brought the good camera and gotten some great shots. Performance shots with the phone were impossible, since the lighting is so extreme.
From: shunn Date: June 23rd, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow, that's a great, enlightened position they take toward photos and recording.

And the pics you got really do look excellent. I wouldn't have guessed it was a phone if I hadn't seen you take them.
From: laurie_daniels Date: June 23rd, 2006 02:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Those are from a phone? Wow.

Really amazing. It's not surprising that the show was as amazing as it apparently was, but it sounds like they exceeded even the highest expectations.

I'm really happy Ken got to go up front (yaay), and happy that you were able to get away from Job Hell to go.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: June 23rd, 2006 02:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes -- the Treo has a pretty good camera, but not good enough to take stage shots. And yes, the show did exceed every expectation.
From: shunn Date: June 23rd, 2006 04:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yep, I pretty much said, "Well, I'm going to the show," and that was that. And I was very glad I went! Had a great time at dinner with Ken and Colin, even if it wasn't Virgil's BBQ like we had planned, and then the show was phenomenal.

And then I took the V train home and stayed up until 4:30 working on the [whizbang]. And then got up at 6:00 to launch it.
readwrite From: readwrite Date: June 23rd, 2006 02:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I didn't realize he ever used a flatpick. He's famous for not using one. And speaking as someone who prefers doing so myself, I've always been impressed by how fast he can be playing that way.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: June 23rd, 2006 02:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
He definitely used one on a few songs, and he had one of those pick-holders attached to his mic stand. But mostly fingers. Do you really find flatpicking to be faster than finger picking? I'm not terribly experienced but my experience is exactly the opposite.
readwrite From: readwrite Date: June 23rd, 2006 02:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Theoretically, one can play as fast, at least for a short time, with one's fingers as with a flatpick. A good classical guitarist can play quite fast single-note passages with his or her fingers. But for the real speed-demon leads past, present, and future--Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Tal Farlow, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, John McLaughlin, Albert Lee, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai--a flatpick is indicated. Joe Pass played pretty fast with his fingers, but kept a flatpick between his lips and would use it for really fast single-string leads--kind of proving the rule.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: June 23rd, 2006 02:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
That makes sense -- all the great bluegrass players flatpick -- Doc, Norman Blake, etc. I guess I'm just not good enough with the pick yet. Still hit the wrong string too often! Fingerpicking is easier to control and I can do it a lot faster, plus you can arpeggiate chords or play fast runs on consecutive strings with a fairly mindless motion of the right hand, doing the melody notes by changing fingering on the left hand.
readwrite From: readwrite Date: June 23rd, 2006 03:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I've played for so long with my fingers that I still feel a bit off somehow, sometimes, when I flatpick. I'm much better with it than I used to be, but I think it'll be a while before I'm really comfortable. There are certainly advantages to playing with one's fingers, especially with chords (can just pluck the strings you want on a chord that uses, say, 1-2-3-6 without worrying about damping the other strings). But I would like to be alot more comfortable with a pick.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: June 24th, 2006 02:14 am (UTC) (Link)
I took guitar lessons from ages something like 8 - 14 and never could handle the pick. It's news to me that it is OK to play with your fingers! If it's good enough for Mark Knopfler, hey. That does sound like a great show.
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