LIVE from Your Speakers: Dire Straits, ALCHEMY: DIRE STRAITS LIVE
Dire Straits' 1985 album BROTHERS IN ARMS turned the band into a commercial supernova, thanks in large part to a more streamlined approach to songwriting. It’s difficult to imagine leader Mark Knopfler coming up with platinum pop songs like “Walk of Life” or “So Far Away,” or a simple hard rock cut like “Money for Nothing” for 1979’s COMMUNIQUE or 1980’s MAKING MOVIES, records with Dylanesque lyrical aspirations and Springsteenian sonics. And although 1982’s LOVE OVER GOLD contained the proto-“Money for Nothing” in “Industrial Disease,” it also contained the 14-minute “Telegraph Road,” the culmination of Knopfler’s penchant for long-form composition and the antithesis of the hit-making machine the band would soon become.
With this in mind, there might be no better single document of Dire Straits’ early sound than the 1984 live album ALCHEMY. Recorded over two nights at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, ALCHEMY finds the band running through a smart set of early gems, stretching out and hitting the mark, in front of an audience of appreciative fans, who cheer and sing along throughout.
Not surprisingly, the best songs on the album are the longest. An 11-minute take on “Sultans of Swing” features a mid-song guitar solo in which Knopfler fingerpicks with even greater speed and dexterity than usual, followed by a breakdown that enables him to slow the song to a crawl before building the tempo back up again. The album’s rendition of “Tunnel of Love” covers 14(!) minutes, with an extended intro that gives the audience a bit of a breather (albeit a quite beautiful, melodic one) before the band unfurls the full drama of the song’s opening. And at 13 minutes, the aforementioned “Telegraph Road,” with all its dynamic changes and contemplative passages, builds in intensity and doubtless left the audience breathless.
There are other, shorter bursts that mark the record. “Solid Rock,” in particular, bounces with energy and palpable strength. “Private Investigations,” conversely, does wonders with quiet, as Knopfler’s fingerpicked gut-string guitar work sounds like three players are going at it instead of just one. And “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the band’s best story songs, is played with looseness and a bit of fun, much to its benefit.
Though not often spoken of when classic live albums are discussed, ALCHEMY captures Dire Straits at a high point before their biggest commercial achievement, and it’s well worth a spin today, to remind ourselves of that fact.
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