Swinging Golden Hearts (RSM 186-2)
Royal Albert Hall, London, May 23rd, 1996
Disc 1: Darling Pretty/ Walk of Life/ Imelda/ The Bug/ Je suis Desolé/ Calling Elvis/ Last Exit to Brooklyn/ Romeo and Juliet/ Sultans of Swing/ Done With Bonaparte
Disc 2: Telegraph Road/ Brothers in Arms/ Money For Nothing. BONUS TRACKS, recorded in London 15th April 1996: Father and Son/ Golden Heart/ Rüdiger/ Cannibals/ A Night in Summer Long Ago/ Are We in Trouble Now/ Going Home/ Gravy Train
This double CD is perhaps one of the best representations of Mark Knopfler´s early solo shows, and has acquired something of a special status among Dire Straits and Knopfler collectors. The excellent Godfathers release Making History (with Emmylou Harris), published last year, was a very good representation of his recent work with his live band; for most collectors, however, Swinging Golden Hearts may come to fill a similar purpose in showcasing the early concerts in his post-Straits career.
The bulk of the Swinging Golden Hearts CD comes from the May 23rd 1996 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Knopfler´s shows at the RAH that month were among the most important moments in his 1996 tour, as they signalled his return to London as a major artist after the Dire Straits had been finally laid to rest. This particular show was broadcast by BBC radio, straight from the soundboard; hence the astonishing sound quality. A few songs from it were even offered for a brief time in a special edition of the Dire Straits compilation Sultans of Swing, published in 1998. What is important about this particular double CD edition can be narrowed down to three factors: its immaculate sound (quite worthy of a full official release), the beautiful aesthetics of the overall package, and the fact that it is nicely completed with bonus material extracted from another show: the special One Night in London also recorded for the BBC on the 15th of April 1996 (a month before the RAH concerts) and which was officially released as a video later taht same year. That particular BBC show has been available in CD form in various formats and for several years (complete in the no-label release entitled Golden Night; incomplete in the Kiss the Stone release Break of Day). Mark´s band for both shows, and indeed for the whole Golden Heart tour, included Richard Bennett on guitar, Jim Cox on keyboards and accordion, Glenn Worf on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums, along with longtime Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher. On two of the bonus tracks here they are joined by the extraordinary Sonny Landreth on slide guitar.
The May 23rd, 1996 show from the Royal Albert Hall fills the whole of the first CD and half of the second. The tremendous energy that will dominate the whole peformance is evident from the very first moment, when the drum beat from “Darling Pretty” acts as the backdrop for the first guitar figure of the night, powerfully played by Knopfler with an intensity that goes well beyond the studio version. “Walk of Life” follows immediately, played exactly as it was in the Dire Straits days; in the final section of the song Knopfler addresses the audience and welcomes them, promising a varied evening in which he and the band are going to play for a long time, doing “old ones, new ones and film stuff”, and even suggesting that the audience will have a say in what follows: “anything you want us to do, we will do” (of course, it is well known that Knopfler´s setlists are always very stable and unlikely to change by indications coming from the audience…) A couple of steady, very electric rock numbers (“The Bug” and “Imelda”) complete this early part of the show.
The really interesting material comes with the numbers more oriented towards the bluesier, folkier side of Knopfler, which he was starting to integrate in his concerts in 1996. An excellent, bittersweet version of “Je Suis Desolé” helps to showcase the fluidity of the band, with the beautiful accompaniment of Jim Cox on accordion and Guy Fletcher on piano. A short, delicate fragment from “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, with the added help of a string quartet, leads into “Romeo And Juliet”; the inevitable “Sultans of Swing” then follows, played in full Alchemy-style, with the elongated guitar outro, opposed to the more austere and shorter version which is being played today, in Knopfler´s 2008 shows. The first CD comes to an end with one of the show highlights: “Done With Bonaparte”, where all the musicians change instruments momentarily. Annuncing the song, Mark announces that Guy Fletcher is going to “descend from the mighty heights” in order to play guitar for a while, while Richard Bennet plays bouzouki and Guy Cox straps on his accordion once more; Chad Cromwell will play “a cymbal that he´s very fond of”. And after this joyful introduction, “Done With Bonaparte” is performed acoustically with enormous taste and full swing by all the band, to the delight of the audience.
The second CD offers a gem that lasts for more than 14 minutes and a half: a powerful, dynamic version of “Telegraph Road” where Mark combines the well-known guitar figures of the original version with some beautiful innovations. This is easily the best version I have heard of “Telegraph Road” (and I have certainly heard a few…). The May 29th 1996 show comes to a close with the customary “Brothers in Arms” and “Money for Nothing”, both quite similar to the classic Dire Straits versions. But those who get Swinging Golden Hearts still have a few more wonders to listen to in the fragments from the 1996 BBC show which are included as a bonus. The real milestones there are the two performances where Mark and the band are joined by slide guitar virtuoso Sonny Landreth: “Gravy Train” and “Cannibals”, the latter of which is introduced by a lively give-and-take jam between Mark and Sonny that is worth the price of admission by itself.
The only legitimate complaint about this release could be the fact that the Royal Albert Hall show is not complete; there is probably no helping this, as the radio broadcast from which it was taken was also incomplete to start with. This is certainly to be lamented in terms of the historical significance of the document. But if we overlook this shortcoming, there can be no denying that this double CD is a wonderful package with some extraordinary musical moments, a beautiful representation from Knopfler´s 1996 shows, and a welcome addition to the collection of any lover of music.