To all my guitar playing friends and music aficionados… file the following piece under “coming late to the party” since this all dates back to the late 1980s. But I was totally unaware of the collaborations of this musical”Odd Couple” until recently when I stumbled upon a classic YouTube concert video.while wandering down the Interweb Highway (Route 499). It is a live concert reminiscent of those super groups of the late 60s but of a much more cross-cutting nature featuring a super duet guitar coupling of Mark Knopfler (formerly of Dire Straits) and the late, great country music legend Chet Atkins.
I thought it was kind of strange at first since I wouldn’t think to use those two names in the same sentence, but after listening to it several things are clear: 1) Mark Knopfler has always been one of my favorite rock/blues guitar players but here he demonstrates some serious “chops” that elevate him to another level – he held his own playing with Atkins, 2) Knopfler was clearly influenced by and borrows heavily from Atkins’ style, and 3) with his deadpan demeanor Atkins makes his intricate finger picking style for riffs as well as rhythm look so obscenely effortless, he almost looks bored. But that was part of his shtick.
They traded off equally between rhythm and lead and appeared to be having great fun – Knopfler the up and coming protégé and Atkins the masterful teacher proud to share the spotlight.
It turns out that Knopfler and Atkins played together on several occasions. Their collaboration included a number of concert dates and a critically acclaimed joint album, Neck and Neck produced by Knopfler in 1991. They performed tunes from diverse genres – from Django Rheinhardt’s Tears to John Lennon’s Imagine including samples each of their repertoires, which indicated a mutual respect for each other’s talent and musicianship. Despite their differences in age and background, they grew to be good friends. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, wrote the following observation:
Working with Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler had a rejuvenating influence on Chet Atkins. Knopfler has Atkins moving toward his country roots, but both guitarists still play with a tasteful, jazzy sensibility—however, Atkins has abandoned the overt jazz fusion pretensions that sank most of his ’80s records.
While I consider my musical tastes fairly well-rounded, in the end the predominance of country music tunes they played didn’t grab me emotionally – they’re technically exquisite and mechanically flawless but can get a bit hokey as a steady diet. But to watch and listen to these master musicians from separate times and cultures working off each other’s vibe and having a blast is inspiring.
Video of Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins playing, “I’ll see you in my dreams” and “Imagine” live at Secret Policeman’s Third Ball 1987:
After watching the video of the instrumental, check out this audio link for a recording of a vocal duet of “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” that is a pretty funny and where they gently poke fun at each other:
If you’re still interested, here’s an interesting interview with Knopfler
While we’re at it, John Illsley, the former bass player from Dire Straits put together a fascinating documentary called “Guitar Stories” featuring his old friend and band-mate, which traces Mark Knopfler’s career by examining six of his favourite guitars that he acquired throughout his career – from the cheap knockoff his dad bought him to get started, through the classic rock guitars (Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul), the traditional delta blues National Steel guitar (made famous by the likes of Tampa Red and Son House), to the exotic, custom-made guitars by local New York luthiers Rudy Pensa and John Monteleone. Together Illsley and Knopfler journey down memory lane to the locations where the guitars were acquired and discuss how each guitar’s unique personality left its mark on Mark. Check it out…