Fare thee well Northumberland....
Released September 2002
1. Why Aye Man
2. Devil Baby
3. Hill Farmer's Blues
4. A Place Where We Used To Live
5. Quality Shoe
6. Fare Thee Well Northumberland
8. You Don't Know You're Born
10. The Ragpicker's Dream
11. Daddy's Gone To Knoxville
12. Old Pigweed
This album was where Mark Knopfler really built on the foundations of folk, blues, gentle rock and British/Americana folk traditions that he had begun on his first two solo albums. People hoping for Dire Straits-style extended guitar solos would not find them here. There is an acoustic emphasis on many of the tracks, with folky soloing and sensitive, thoughtful, socially aware lyrics, often built around working class characters from Northumberland. It is a very North-Eastern album. Yes, the songs may have a pastoral/bucolic fee, but there is also an edge of social injustice and the harsh reality of life. This is never expressed better than in the opener Why Aye Man, about British builders having to travel to Germany in search of work. Despite its acoustic intro, there is also some killer bluesy guitar on this most evocative track. Its uplifting, singalong beat disguises its world-weary sadness, however.
Devil Baby is another beautifully melodic and sad song. Echoes of Americana and country rock blend perfectly with Knopfler's quiet British folk voice. This sort of material is similar to that Knopfler played in his Notting Hillbillies sideline. Hill Farmer's Blues again merges Americana stylings with Northern British pastoral issues. Knopfler sings of Northumbrian farmers "going into Tow Law...", (a County Durham town). Its percussion backing is almost Irish in its bodhran-like sound. A Place Where We Used To Live is very Elvis Costello-like in its slow, piano-backed ballad delivery, and Knopfler's voice is very Chris Rea in places.
Quality Shoe borrows heavily from Roger Miller's King Of The Road and is an upbeat country song in praise of a good pair of shoes. Fare Thee Well Northumberland is a slow, bluesy piece of British folk that shows you don't have to come from the Mississippi Delta to write and sing stuff like this. I love it. Marbletown is a very finger-picking acoustic folk number with Dylanesque airs. You Don't Know You're Born has a shuffling, bluesy beat and is probably the most Dire Straits-like number on the album. The guitar at the end is almost Shadows-like in places. Coyote has hints of Bruce Springsteen's post 2000 work about it and also features some excellent rumbling blues guitar too. The title track is beautifully gentle and atmospheric. Daddy's Gone To Knoxville is a lively slice of country honky tonk swing, as far from Dire Straits as you could get, in many ways. Old Pigweed has Knopfler sleepily signing off in what has become his now trademark semi-spoken laconic vocal style.
This material would certainly not please the stadium rock fans that Dire Straits attracted, but Knopfler doesn't give a damn about that. Neither do I. Although I own all the Dire Straits albums, it is these solo ones I return to far more regularly.