Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Staying Strait... A Conversation with Chris White of the Straits

Maybe you can’t go home again, but thankfully, there is always the opportunity to revisit great music.  The Straits, featuring two members of Dire Straits, are keeping the music of that legendary band alive and well, and adding to the legacy with some new tunes.  Although Dire Straits has never fully reformed, the interest in their music has never seemed to wane.  Some members of the band put together a few benefit gigs, and to their delight, discovered the chemistry of the band remained intact, and that the magic present when they played live was still working. After a great deal of encouragement from friends and fans, including founder Mark Knopfler, and a catalog of songs that  reflect a virtual soundtrack of the era they were created, "The Straits" are embarking on a tour that showcases the music of “Dire Straits.” Current band members from the original eighties and nineties family include Chris White, the sax player and keyboard player Alan Clark.  They are joined by some of the best side players in the music world. 

White is quite emphatic that “The Straits” are not a “tribute band.”  He’s right. Having helped to create the sound, Clark and White have skin in the game. And heart.

“Really, this is a ‘different band’ than the original Dire Straits. We’ve got a number of new musicians joining us, great musicians. Because they are so good, it’s brought a renewed energy to the music. From the reaction we’ve been getting from audiences, it feels a lot like it did the first time, through.”

The music of Dire Straits sold well over 30,000,000 albums at their peak, winning four Grammy awards. It is deeply embedded in the American music scene, though they hailed from Britain. White thinks he has some insight into that phenomenon, and isn’t immune to it himself.

“I really think that music serves a purpose for people because it ‘locates.’ I’ve got tracks that ‘locate’ people in my life in certain times and places. Just about everyone remembers where they were when they first heard ‘Sultans of Swing.’ For me, I remember driving in the cart, and hearing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the first time- my mouth was hanging open!”

It’s more than that, he feels. There is a historical context.

“I also think that the Dire Straits stuff was quite different than what was going on in England at the time. It was non-punk. As things progressed with the band, so did technology.  There were more sounds available. Mark (Knopfler, founder, lead guitar player, and main songwriter for the original band) really embraced that.  Some of the later arrangements have quite a large and classical feel. In that regard, the music really stood out to people.”

It still does.

White has great respect for the music he and the band will be playing in Salisbury, and is grateful for the freedom it gives him as a player.

“I started with Mark as a sax player, working on some film stuff with him.  He asked me to join the band. Mark knew me as a solo player, and not really for ensemble work.  As a result, I got a lot of freedom to try things, and work stuff in. I’m not really a jazz player; I’ve been pretty much in rock and pop my whole career. What I was able to do with the songs has been really great for me, I’ve grown a lot.”

The repertoire of the “Straits” covers much of the history of “Dire Straits.”  They are planning on laying down some original tracks in the fall, to see where it takes them.

“That will be music that this band, this group of people will create. We think we have some of our own music in us as a band.”

While the songs in the Salisbury set are going to be familiar to fans, “The Straits” bring something extra to the stage.

“These guys are really great musicians in their own right. Some of the best.  And they bring a wealth of experience and their own unique style to the music, while playing within the fabric of the song. We can do that because these are very good songs. Steve Ferrone isn’t able to join us on the tour- he’s the drummer, and he has some things to do with Tom Petty, the band he mainly plays in. We’ve brought in a drummer from the UK, Andy Davis.  So where Steve might have taken us one place, Andy tends to bring us back to the more original Dire Straits sound, which has also been great.”

“And it’s been great having Terrence Rais out in front of the band on guitar- without even trying, he is able to sound like Mark.  For example, last night, in Portland, Maine, he took off at the end of ‘Sultans of Swing,’ in a way Mark would not have, but was totally in keeping with the song. We were chasing each other in ways we hadn’t before, and then Andy was able to bring us back again.  As a musician, that’s a fantastic opportunity.  That’s given so much new energy to the rest of us, and kept the music fresh. “

White points out that the band reformed as a result of a charity concert in London two years ago.

“Yeah, we got a fantastic reaction, more than we imagined.  So we did a few gigs, and few more, then got serious about doing this. So far, American audiences have been every bit as enthusiastic as the ones we’ve seen in Europe.  We’re playing much smaller venues for this tour, and have been having a great time connecting with the audience.”

Because of their time and place in pop music, that connection has become multi-generational.

“We got an email the other day from a guy who said ‘my father took me to see Dire Straits in 1992, and last night, I took him to see you guys. Thanks for making that possible.  And the other night, two guys hung around after the gig, and came up to us and said ‘thanks for holding on to this music, it’s wonderful.’  We’ve just been knocked out by the response.”

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