By Mark Guarino
The best duet partners in country music are typically partners in real life: George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash and June Carter, even Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. In songs that double as relationship talk, it’s better if the couple singing it has that familiarity and investment, or at least can fake it.
That certain chemistry didn’t sparkle when Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris performed together Sunday at the Charter One Pavilion, located on Northerly Island. No one can fault the British rock guitarist and the seasoned country singer for not being a couple and indeed Knopfler’s husky whisper and Harris’ silken soprano are certainly in their own league. But their collaboration lacked playfulness and despite the fact that their voices met through a mixing board, there was little interaction on the stage.
Their unusual pairing is due to “All the Roadrunning” (Nonesuch) and album of mostly Knopfler originals billed to both singers. The show featured most of the new album plus a few songs from their respective careers. The mood was somber, a tone both do very well. Knopfler sings in a voice best imagined for whispering in ears. Harris’ voice filters heartache like a broken dam, especially potent on songs like “Boulder to Birmingham,” where she sang, “The last time I felt like this/It was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire/And I stood on the mountain in the night and I watched it burn.”
A six-member band created a frisky backdrop behind the two singers. The title duet from the new album incorporated Celtic fiddle and accordion, helping turn it into a waltz. But the blue tones of Knopfler’s guitar stole the night. In every way but obvious, Knopfler’s fluid and honeyed accents floated through each song, creating a constant mood of uncertainty and sadness.
To his credit, he mostly ignored the reliable standards from his hitmaking days fronting Dire Straits. There was a sublime version of “Romeo and Juliet” and he and Harris closed the one-hour, 45-minute show with “Why Worry,” a Dire Straits obscurity transformed into a slow acoustic lament worthy of the Everly Brothers.
Since her early days singing with the late Gram Parsons, Harris and entered many projects with many male vocal partners— Neil Young, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams, Beck — all injected with lively energy.
This project is much more tame. On “This is Us,” she and Knopfler played the role of a married couple, flipping through photos and remembering their shared past. Both singers delivered on a dime, but the visual told a different story. “You and me and our memories,” they sang, while standing far apart from one another, not even framed close enough for a snapshot.