Experiencing Dire Straits and all that jazz

Standout tribute to the Sultans of Swing returns to Israel for four shows.

Chris White (left) and Terence Feis of the Dire Straits Experience  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chris White (left) and Terence Feis of the Dire Straits Experience
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dire Straits could never be mistaken for a jazz band. Then again, without some training in the discipline, Chris White would probably never have joined the feted now defunct Mark-Knopfler-led British rock legends back in the 1980s.
Today, the 64-year-old saxophonist, who also plays flute and percussion, and sings, is one of the mainstays of the Dire Straits Experience, an eight-piece tribute troupe that appears around the world with a repertoire of the blockbuster numbers originally recorded and performed by the source group.
That is some act to follow. Dire Straits, which was doing the rounds of the global gigging circuit and recording studios from 1977 to 1988, with a second wind 1991-95, put out a string of big-selling records, chalking up mammoth album sales of over 100 million. Fans the world over snapped up their vinyls and CDs and grooved to such hits as “Sultans of Sing,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Brothers in Arms.”
That includes us Israelis. Their 1985 show at Hayarkon Park, which I attended, has a standout berth for me, in my close to half a century of going to rock and pop concerts. It was also, if memory serves, the first time this country had a state-of-the-art sound system in operation for an outdoor rock event.
White is returning to these shores with the Experience for a four-date Israeli tour, taking in shows in Tel Aviv (September 11 and 12) and Haifa (September 13) and winding up in Jerusalem (September 14).
Besides White’s original connection to the band, what makes the Experience much more than a tribute band is the remarkable performance of front man, South African actor turned musician Terence Reis.
He not only replicates Knopfler’s guitar and singing style in an eerily accurate manner, he performs with such gusto and passion it’s easy to forget that you aren’t watching the original Dire Straits in its early 1980s prime.
“From intense, elongated versions of epics like ‘Telegraph Road’ and ‘Tunnel of Love’ to fan favorites like ‘Walk Of Life’ and ‘Brothers in Arms,’ the music hit every target, without a false note of mimicry or nostalgia,” read a Jerusalem Post review of a 2012 show in Israel.
The Dire Straits connection for White began in 1984 with a heads-up from the people who helped him manage his work schedule.
“I got a phone call, one day, from a man who was looking after my diary. He said he’d booked a session for me for this guy called Mark Knopfler,” White chuckles. “I knew who Mark was, but I’m not sure they did.”
The upshot was a booking to play sax on one section of a soundtrack Knopfler had written for a British comedy film called Comfort and Joy. White was only too happy to comply.
“I was a fan of Dire Straits at that point. I loved their stuff,” he recalls. “I went into the studio and met Mark, and we played on this one track.”
Knopfler was impressed with the horn playing and wanted some more where that came from.
“We finished and then he asked me if I could do something on another track,” says White. “So I played on the next track and I didn’t leave the studio for three days. I played on the whole soundtrack.”
White’s path to a permanent slot in the band was set. “After those three days I did some more things with Mark, and with [Scottish pop band] Aztec Camera, and eventually Mark just said why don’t I come and join Dire Straits. That’s how it happened.”
So the then-29-year-old saxophonist stepped out of relative anonymity straight into the brightest limelight the rock world then had to offer.
With the Experience, White says, he has always been keen to keep the expansive Dire Straits creative flame ablaze, too.
“Mark always had a very strong idea of what he wanted, but if you had something to offer he would listen. But when we played live, yes, we played pretty much the same set every night, but there are lots of songs when I would be sort of duetting with Mark and it would be different every night. We’d go somewhere else every night, and that was great. That is absolutely something we try to maintain with our shows, with the Experience.”
The Experience began life in 2011, quite a few years after Knopfler moved onto musical pastures anew. It is that willingness to dip into uncharted waters, says White, that kick-started the whole venture in the first place, and keeps him and the rest of the gang on the road.
“We put things together in one night really, in 2011, and we’ve just rolled on since. I think one of the reasons why it’s persisted is I hope that [open] approach keeps it fresh and alive. It does for me, certainly.”
WHITE MAY be one of the leading and most enduring saxophonists in the rock firmament, but, at least for a time, he spent much of his waking hours fine-tuning a more improvisational line of sonic pursuit.
“There was a while, when I was a teenager, when I listened to jazz. But then I kind of fell out of love with jazz. I played in some jazz bands, but it’s not where my heart is. My heart is really in rock and stuff like Dire Straits.”
The blues tugged at White’s youthful coattails more insistently. The sixties were not only a time when the Western world was made to sit up and take note of the Fab Four and the Rolling Stones et al. From the beginning of the decade, the likes of – principally – Alexis Korner and subsequently Peter Green and John Mayall, not to mention various members of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and more who passed through Korner’s various lineups, led what was termed a “blues revival,” which later provided much of the impetus for the developing British rock scene that took the world by storm. White was heavily into all of that.
“While I was at college I played lots of blues gigs around London. There was great freedom doing that stuff.”
Earlier denials of any lasting strong feelings for jazz notwithstanding, if it hadn’t been for White’s brief dalliance with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, he may not have made it into the ranks of Dire Straits.
“Funnily enough, that was kind of my calling card with Mark,” he confesses. “It was my calling card with Mark’s manager, Ed Bicknell. Mark needed a sax guy for that kind of [soundtrack] session, and somebody said to Ed he should try this guy, he plays with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Ed, a long time earlier, had been a drummer and was very into jazz. So, in a way, that’s how I got to Mark and Dire Straits.”
White is looking forward to coming back here, a couple of years after the previous Experience Israeli foray and a full 34 years after that memorable show at Hayarkon Park.
“It was the second show of the Brothers In Arms tour, in Tel Aviv. We also did Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem on that tour.” The former concert sticks out in White’s sequined touring memory banks. “I remember that gig so well,” he notes. “I remember the sun going down as we started ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and people holding their lighters up. It was incredible to see that from the stage. It was a really great moment.”
With all four shows in the upcoming tour here indoor events, it is unlikely White will be able to relive that enduring moment, but hopefully there will be some magic from the Experience gang anyway.
For tickets and more information: *9066 and https://www.eventim.co.il