I get it, Freddie Mercury and Queen stole the stage with their “Aaaaaay-Oh” engagement with the crowd at the 1985 Live Aid event at Wembley. No arguments here – Queen is a once-in-a-lifetime artistic gem.
For my money, though, an equally once-in-a-lifetime musical talent, albeit much less well known and severely underappreciated, is the guitar virtuosity of Mark Knopfler and his team of Dire Straits. Underappreciated might be an understatement. No one remembers this, but they even had the first single release on compact disc with Brothers in Arms and the first music video to air on the UK version of MTV with Money for Nothing. Mark Knopfler has the guitar number on The Princess Bride. These guys did it all.
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To be certain, Live Aid was not Dire Strait’s first live performance – not by a long shot. But rewatching their performance of Sultans of Swing, with it’s six minute, saxophone-heavy outtro is as mesmerizing now as it must have been so many decades ago. It inspired a deep dive down the rabbit hole on YouTube. (I’ve gotten lost on worse tangents before, so this is a win of sorts).
This is all a long way to say: What are the best live versions of some of Dire Strait’s biggest hits? In no particular order, mine are laid out below. One of the main criteria was the riffing that Mark and his bandmates go on at the end of the song. Mark’s singing live, despite the poetry of the lyrics, doesn’t matter. I’m just listening to that guitar (or in the case of a few great numbers, the understated saxophone).
And as always, lists like these are purely subjective and all for fun. Comment below if you have a different suggestion.
#1: Brothers in Arms
There are a lot of great versions of this one. I am going with the performances at Wembley Arena in 1988 in commemoration of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday.
#2: Sultans of Swing
Like many, this was my introduction to Dire Straits. Because of my bias for this song, I had to include a few. There are so many great variations, including the use off a saxophone, that I cheated on my list already and am including some runners up. The second spot goes to the Wembley Arena performance in 1985, just a few days ahead of the Live Aid session. As a runner up, I am giving honorable mentions to the 1983 version heard on the album Alchemy and the 1996 version from a Night in London.
#3: Tunnel of Love
Let’s just put it this way. After sixteen minutes, you 1) can’t believe it’s been sixteen minutes and 2) don’t want the song to end. Enough said. This version comes from a performance at Wembley Stadium in 1986.
This song takes my list off the beaten path, but what the heck. This version comes from a 1986 performance in Sydney.
#5: What It Is
In the fifth and final spot, I will go with a solo Knopfler gem. It captures the essence of Mark Knopfler and his guitar playing. Also, and I said it wasn’t a criterion for the list, but the lyrics are miles ahead of what even the most gifted singer-songwriters manage. Who writes like this anymore? Or ever? This version comes from a 2013 performance in Rome, where Mark really lets the Celtic/Bluegrass influences shine through.