The Mann Center for the Performing Arts
26 July 2008
8:45 PM: My wife and I are seated in the Front Orchestra Section, Row J, Seats 117 and 118. We are only ten rows from the stage, slightly to what will be Mark’s left. We are chatting amiably with a lovely chap seated in the row directly in front of us. He speaks of how he has traveled from the Jersey shore to see the show. He has been a fan for years; saw Dire Straits at The Mann in 1982. On this night, he has brought his teenage daughter, his wife, and his sister – who traveled all the way from Manhattan to be here – for what will be the only chance any of them would get to see Mark Knopfler on this Tour. The fellow asks if we have seen Mark before, and I mention that, in addition to seeing Mark in 2001, 2005 and 2006, we just witnessed the best show of any of them at Wolftrap last Tuesday. The man asks how Wolftrap compares to The Mann Center.
And there it is. The question that had been nagging me since the end of the concert four nights ago. How does (or will) Wolftrap compare to The Mann Center? Such a simple question, yet one which actually runs much deeper. It is not just a question that asks for a comparison of the venues, which is all the fellow meant by asking it. But it is also a question that by its very nature is asking for a comparison of the shows performed there. It is a question which had consumed my thoughts day after day and night after sleepless night. One that I would not know the answer to until tonight. While I processed all of these thoughts, my wife shot of a quick response: “Oh, it’s a lot like this.” But to say that Wolftrap is “like” The Mann Center is to say that the two hundred dollar a night Sofitel Hotel (where we stayed Saturday night after the show) is “like” a sixty-five dollar a night Econo Lodge. Sure, both hotels are basically the same. They both have beds, showers and televisions. And both Wofltrap and The Mann have huge covered “sheds” with wide, expansive seating bowls. But whereas Wolftrap is the Sofitel in this illustration, The Mann Center is the Econo Lodge. As for how the two shows will stack up against each other… I will have to wait until…
9:00 PM: The lights in the venue and on stage dim. The band walks on as the crowd comes alive and to its feet. The strumming on stage grows as CANNIBALS begins. There is a palpable hum of electricity in the air. Everything is in its place and my second (and final) show of this Tour starts… NOW.
5:15 PM: We pull up at the The Sofitel Philadelphia Hotel located at the corner of 17th and Sansom Streets. For years the building housed the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, and only recently (in 2000) was converted to a five star luxury Hotel. For this outing – which will contain a number of “firsts” for both my wife and me – we chose to go all out. Luxuriate, as Guy would say. Dad offered to take the kids for the weekend, so we decided to spend the night in downtown Philly. My wife found The Sofitel on the web, ranked number two in the city. I dare not ask how much the number one hotel costs. Valet takes the keys and we check in. As soon as we hit the lobby, I can tell this will be a fabulous place to stay. Up to the room – eleventh floor – and inside the most gorgeous room either of us has ever seen. And we’ve seen a few hotel rooms in our day. (Stop it you perverts. We have traveled a lot.) The room opens up to reveal a king sized bed and a massive flat screen TV. Bathroom contains a stand-alone shower with a glass door and tile on the floor and the surrounding three walls. Like something out of a fancy style magazine. Caramel colored wood doors on the closet and headboard and a view out of the window that simply takes my breath away. My wife drops onto the bed – she has read rave reviews about the bedding – and sinks into it, almost vanishing. Swallowed by the comfort. I refuse to lay down, knowing that if I do, I will be hard pressed to get back up. I’ll save it for tonight. “We’re gonna live like kings tonight!” I exclaim. After all, this weekend will allow us to attend more than one show on a given Tour (a dream of mine for a long time) as well as allowing us to travel to another city to see said show (another first). “We should hit the hotel bar after the show… just like Guy and the band will be doing up in New York.” My wife agrees. Drop the bags, wife takes a quick shower while I change clothes and out into the heat we go to find dinner. Walk a few blocks and fall into a small little bar called Devil’s Alley. No wait so we decide this is the spot. Bacon Blue Cheese Burger, red skin mashed potatoes iced tea and a home brewed lager for me. Turkey Burger, grilled sweet potatoes and the same drinks for my Wife. I like the beer – she does not. The potatoes are too hot and buttery, my burger is too greasy, the bacon underdone and the blue cheese is salad dressing and not the actual crumbles. Hate when restaurants do that. My wife enjoys her meal, but her potato slices are cold in the center. Guess we should have kept walking past this place. Oh well, time was running short and we needed to find somewhere to fill our bellies. Perhaps this is what the band experiences when they arrive at catering and cannot find one thing worth eating. At least it was quick and the bill was cheap. We had decided earlier in the day to flag a cab after dinner and ride the Center City Loop bus back after the show. I ask the Waitress if she knows how much a cab might run us from here to there. She confesses that she has never heard of The Mann Center. Great.
7:30 PM: Back out into the heat to flag a cab. Driver pulls up, the window is down. The following exchange transpires:
Me: “Do you know how to get to The Mann Center for the Performing Arts?”
Well at least he knows about The Mann. I can tell he is not happy to be here. Jump in and off we go. Driver talks on his cell phone the entire trip. Glance at his ID card… no kidding, his name is Mohamed. A cabbie named Mohamed. Shocking. He drives with the windows down… all four of them. God knows why in this heat. We proceed through West Philadelphia where the streets – and the surrounding area – quickly deteriorate. Vacant buildings. Entire vacant blocks. Dollar stores and liquor stores. A couple openly engaged in a heated argument. Corner boys slinging drugs. Junkies wandering around like the living dead. Cops whizzing by, lights and sirens blaring. The pungent smell of urine in the air. Feel like I’m back at work. I thought I went on vacation to get away from this stuff? From somewhere behind the cab I hear the roar of dirt bike engines. I know this sound. Glance over my shoulder to see three black teens – one riding a four wheel ATV, the other two on smaller two wheel dirt bikes. Weaving in and out of traffic. Very dangerous. Very illegal. I burst into hysterics. “Jesus, I AM back at work!”
SIDE BAR: In my “real” life, I am a Detective with the Baltimore City Police Department. That is what the BPD in my screen name stands for. I have never mentioned this publicly on this or any other forum as you never know how people will feel about cops. But some of you reading this already know of my career in Law Enforcement. For the past nine years I have witnessed the decline of that City firsthand. It’s a tough thing to see in a City I love so much. As for the dirt bikes, in Baltimore (and now it seems in Philadelphia as well) one of the more humorous “hobbies” that inner city youths often engage in during the hot summer months is the racing of illegal dirt bikes through crowded city streets. Most Baltimore cops won’t even bother to chase them as the risk of hurting an innocent civilian far outweighs the reward of capturing the teen. Plus, you gotta let folks have fun sometime. What else is there to do when your refrigerator is empty, the electricity is cut off cause your Mama didn’t pay the bill, and its hotter inside your house than it is outside in the streets? Being in West Philly reminds me that you can find despair mixed with small glimmers of joy in almost every major City in America. Stark reality slamming against a nice weekend getaway.
Back to the cab ride. Mohamed comes to a stop just after the dirt bike kids hang a left behind us and disappear. “I will let you out here.” Just ahead of us we see the entrance to The Mann. Bill comes to fourteen dollars and change. Pass Mohamed a twenty, say thank you and out the door we go. Brisk walk across the street, up the slight hill and we get our first glance ever of The Mann Center for the Performing Arts. And the impression is… flat. I’ll put it like this: Remember that scene in STAR WARS when the Jawas are driving around in that big, brown, hulking, boxy thing they use to drive around in? (Yeah, I know, I just mentioned STAR WARS. Sue me. That’s what I thought of when I first saw The Mann. Besides, who here has not see that film? I doubt anyone anywhere has not see it!) Well anyway, the stage area at The Mann looks kind of like that thing. It is big and brown and hulking and boxy and just plain odd. Nothing at all like Wolftrap, which is far more elegant. Not to mention the fact that Wolftrap sits nestled deep within a National Park. Whereas The Mann sits nestled deep within… a ghetto. Anyway, it’s the band that matters, not the venue… right? Right? We pass through Gate A and inside the venue. Glance at my watch…
8:15 PM: As we walk through the gate, I immediately recognize a small, bald white male sitting on the sidewalk near the backstage area of the venue. I grab my Wife’s arm. “That’s John McCusker! That’s John McCusker!” Yes, I said it twice. I needed to convince myself it was not a hallucination. But damn if it was not The Wee Man himself. My wife smiles and points out that John is using his cell phone. Well, what happened next may be construed as rude, but it’s not like the guy was out there all be himself. There were dozens of patrons milling about. As I walk past John – who by this point has noticed my recognition of him and has smiled a joyous smile – I say: “I don’t want to interrupt your phone conversation, but we saw you at Wolftrap. You were F***ING AMAZING!” (Yes I said the F-word. Sometimes, that’s the only expletive that will work in such a situation!) John’s smile widens considerably at this, and he slides the cell phone away from his mouth and ear. “Thank you very much. Enjoy the show.” We start to walk away when I suddenly remember that I have my small digital camera in my pocket. John has returned to his call, and I walk back a few steps. He starts to rise as if to come over to me, (or maybe to run in terror!) and I gesture for him to continue doing what he is doing. “Do your thing.” I say. “Do you mind if I take your picture? Keep doing your thing, act like I am not even here.” John smiles again and says: “Sure thing. Go ahead.” He then poses and I snap a picture. The picture taken, I mouth the words “thank you” and turn to leave. John says again: “Sure thing. Thanks a lot and enjoy the show.” What a guy! I don’t know if he was simply humoring us or not, but I truly got the sense that he enjoyed being recognized. After this encounter, I couldn’t help but wonder who else might be lurking in this backstage area. No time to find out though as the beer and iced tea from dinner were screaming to be let out. Quick bathroom break followed by a look around. The venue is… well… crappy. Nothing like Wolftrap except for the massive wooden structure that houses the stage. And even that looks decrepit. Way up on the lawn area I notice a large tent, presumably containing the dining area. The one at Wolftrap was more like and outdoor restaurant than a tent. This one looks like it might topple at the slightest gust of wind. My overall impression of the venue: Yuk. On to better things. I decide to purchase yet another copy of INAMORATA, this one for my dad’s wife who attended the Wolftrap show with us. Sort of a “thank you for babysitting the kids while we went to Philly and enjoyed the second show without you” gift. Stuff the CD in my pocket and down to our seats we glide. Jessica Hoop is on stage now, playing the same song she played as we entered Wolftrap. Still not sure how I feel about her music. Yes I am. Sorry folks, but not my cuppa tea, as they say.
8:30 PM: Jessica announces that she will play two more songs. The first was written for her mother. She then proceeds to warble some sort of noise which can only be described as the sound an animal makes when trying to find a suitable mate. As the song drones on, my wife leans over to me and whispers: “Is her mother an owl?” My laughter is uncontainable. As the song ends, Jessica announces that this next song will be her last. “Good.” I mutter. This draws a laugh from the woman seated in front of me. “Oh, did I say that out loud? I’m sorry.” “No, no…” she replies, “I agree with you.” She smiles and reports that she came all the way from Manhattan to see the show with her brother, his teenage daughter and his wife. Thus begins our conversation with the fellow from the Jersey shore, and his sister from Manhattan. While we chat, the fellow from New Jersey makes a pit stop to the bathroom. Upon his return, I learn that he saw Guy Fletcher standing in the same area where we encountered John McCusker! And I missed him! Damn! The fellow insists that he did not disturb Guy – who was also on a cell phone – and this only serves to make me feel like a schmuck for bothering John. Oh well, at least I got my picture. And just like that, before I know it, it’s…
9:00 PM: Everything is in its place and my second (and final) show of this Tour starts… NOW. Mark and company rip into the show opener, and from there, all of my thoughts of ghettos and STAR WARS dissipate. From this vantage point, almost directly center stage, I can see so much more than I could at Tuesday’s show. The way Danny flips the stick in his left hand (the high-hat hand) back almost completely over his shoulder with each beat. The way Glenn dances with that huge lady. The way Richard slides across the stage from Guy’s position to Mark’s in his white leather shoes. The way Guy shoves his microphone away from his mouth in order to focus all of his energy into what he is playing. The way John stands completely erect and at attention during the parts he does not play on… only slightly bobbing his head to the beat. The way Matt hunkers down behind his keys. And the way Mark moves those fingers. My God, the way that man moves those fingers! I now know exactly where that line in SULTANS came from about making the guitar cry and making it sing. Guitar George may not have wanted to, but Mark sure does. And does he do it well!
For those who have not had the chance to see any of the shows on this Tour, I want to try and describe some of the highlights for you. As with the Wolftrap show, the first “half” of the show flies by with an ease much like that of having a conversation with an old friend. During SAILING TO PHILADELPHIA, directly after Mark sings the title line for the first time, the man himself tips his right hand off of his forehead as if to salute everyone in Philly at once. Priceless. THE FISH AND THE BIRD draws even more of a reaction than it did at Wolftrap, sucking the crowd in deeper with each strum of the chords. But when HILL FARMER’S BLUES starts… things get mighty powerful on stage. The band rips through the final section of the song as if they can’t wait to get to the end. Not rushing it, just working it to an eruption that sends shock waves throughout the venue. The crowd roars their approval, not knowing that ROMEO AND JULIET and SULTANS OF SWING are about to follow. ROMEO draws screams from the ladies, SULTANS earns cheers from EVERYONE! A funny observation during SULTANS: There was a woman wearing a white tank top and white shorts who was seated a few rows ahead of us, and my Wife and I were in hysterics when she tried unsuccessfully to get her date/husband/boyfriend to dance with her during SULTANS OF SWING. When she could clearly see he was not going to budge, she moved down near the front and attempted to get another fan in a different section to dance with her. The big, bald, fat security guard stopped her and sent her back to her seat! Too funny, though the security guard was being kind of a jerk to her. SONG FOR SONNY LISTON was the most guttural, bluesy and downright nasty version that I have ever heard performed live, and it drew hordes of applause both during and after. And then there was MARBLETOWN. I know a lot has been written about the interplay of the band – especially between John McCusker and Glenn Worff - during this song. But again, for those who did not get to see it, I want to try to impress upon you the images I witnessed. Near the end of the song, John, Glenn and Mark begin to form a semi-circle on stage as they played. John to the left, Glenn in the center, and Mark on the right as you face the stage. Guy – who is on guitar at this point – and Richard both stand near Guy’s set up and just watch, each strumming as they absorb the magic occurring to their right. It starts with Mark bringing the volume level down considerably. John joins in with his violin, Glenn quieting his bass. What follows is approximately three minutes of John and Glenn sharing the stage, challenging each other to a duel, and matching one another lick for lick. It is awe inspiring, breathtaking and stunning. John slowing his play and starting to finger pick the violin… Glenn lowering his massive frame to lean into the bass… and all the while, Mark strumming his acoustic guitar and focusing all of his attention directly at the two. Mark’s glance never waivers. It is as if he is focusing his own energy into the boys, encouraging them to go deeper. Just incredible.
But nothing compared to what came next.
SPEEDWAY AT NAZARETH has to be one of the best live songs Mark has included in his set list since SULTANS was first played in front of an audience. And for those who missed the show, you really missed a treat. Because the song contains one hell of a prop piece. When the song drops from lyrics to the “outro” section, a massive circular lighting rig begins to descend toward the stage. Up until this point in the show, the rig hangs face down above the band. But as it drops, descending in a smoke filled haze of thunderous music that makes it look like a space ship landing right on top of Mark, the rig swings down to face the crowd, thus exposing a screen containing the close up image of Mark’s signature national steel guitar. You have probably seen the pictures of the rig and screen… but I must tell you, seeing it descend toward the stage – stopping only inches above Danny’s head – is like nothing you have ever seen at a Knopfler concert. The rig stays down, facing the crowd, for the remainder of the show. And it is on this screen that some of the most beautiful light displays are beamed.
As if SPEEDWAY was not enough, the band provided a monumental moment during TELEGRAPH ROAD. As Mark and the boys were revving up toward the finish line of the song, a lone man rose to his feet near the front row. This man turned slightly to his right and faced the crowd. As he did this, he began pumping his arms wildly up and down, signaling everyone in the venue to stand up. And you know what? As cheesy as that description just was, the guy had it right. I don’t know what it was. I have seen Mark perform TELEGRAPH ROAD live six times in my life, but never before have I felt what that fan was also feeling. There was a need to stand up and cheer. And I don’t mean after the band finished the song. I mean while the man was still playing it! So stand up and cheer we did, until long after the band finished and left the stage. And you know what else? I think Mark knew he got it right. He must have. Because he stood in that ovation for a long time this night – longer than I have ever witnessed him do before. I only wish someone had thought to stand right at the beginning of the show. Because it was that good. We should have been giving standing ovations from the first note.
The final thought was not a happy one: This is the last time I will see Mark Knopfler perform live. Want to know how I know that? In 1992, when I experienced the ON EVERY STREET Tour, Mark ended the show with WILD THEME. That night, and in the days leading up to the concert, I had been praying for the full band version of GOING HOME. I was disappointed to get the quieter song instead. But as time passed, I came to love WILD THEME. So…in 2001, 2005 and 2006, I prayed for WILD THEME to close the show. Mark did indeed play it during the 2005 Tour, just not at my Wolftrap show. So here it is in 2008… sixteen years after I prayed for GOING HOME… and now he plays it. I got WILD THEME when I wanted GOING HOME… and I got GOING HOME when I wanted WILD THEME. My life works that way.
11:00 PM: Board the bus, wait what seems like an hour before finally moving, and ride back to the exact same corner where we met our beloved, grumpy Mohamed. Walk the few blocks back to the Sofitel and slide into large, luxurious seats in the lobby bar. Sam Adams for me, Riesling for my wife. I look at her.
Me: “I feel like a king tonight.”
My Wife: “So do I.”
So how does Wolftrap compare to The Mann Center? Well, as far as venues go, there is no comparison. Wolftrap wins hands down. But as far as performances go…? In my Gig Review of the Wolftrap show I spoke of Mark speaking directly to God. Well, no lightening tonight. But there was a presence in that venue. Something just out of reach. Mark and the boys seemed more relaxed and were having a bit more fun of it. But they were reaching for that something that makes it all work. Some describe it as, simply, “It.” Yeah, “It” was there. And I was too. Sorry you weren’t. Maybe next time. I hope there is one…
Brothers In Arms
BRIEF ENCORE (BAND DOES NOT LEAVE THE STAGE)