On the 22 May this year, rock icons Dire Straits have a come-back gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Fronting the band will be a wild-card outsider from South Africa. They’re not saying it, but if there was a sense anyone was standing in Mark Knopfler’s pinspot for this historical moment, Terence Reis would be that guy. Wild card is not quite as wild as it seems though; no band, especially not a group of musicians of this calibre, would take that kind of chance.
Terence Reis is possibly mostly recognised as the voice behind LeadSA on Talk Radio 702, and on DStv. When not reading ad copy, the timbre of his voice is possibly the closest one can get to Mark Knopfler. But that is not why the group’s management team were alerted. There is a lot more at stake here than just a karaoke knock-off - there are enough of those all over the world.
But imagine for a moment the odds of that call coming through to Johannesburg after the band management had stumbled on a short clip of Terence on the net. (Tap in the name search in You Tube all you’ll get is a demo of Terence playing a Shecter guitar.) Throw in the fact that it was Terence’s birthday when he got the call, and that he was reading Keith Richard’s biography, and you’ll understand some of his scepticism at the call: “Hello, is that Terence Reis?” (The number prefix on the screen is +44 - London). .. “This is Alan Clark speaking”. Alan Clark is the keyboard player and effective leader of the band without Knopfler. “Ha, yes, you’re winding me up. Who IS this…?” Until the surreal twists of chance gain some ballast from the dead-pan seriousness of the speaker.
The first time I met Terence was in a whistle stop half way across the Karoo. We were both travelling, in separate cars, to rehearsals for a play in Cape Town. One of the reasons he wanted to travel alone was so he could keep working on the vocals for an album he was recording at the time. When the play had its debut in Grahamstown, he was on the back seat with his guitar. Nick Ashby and I tossed song requests over our shoulders until we arrived. Some were from Not The Midnight Mass (with which Terence had toured with Graham Weir and company in the early nineties), but most had a familiarity about them that came down to how the strings moved. The technique is made deceptively simple, like a magic trick, because you can’t see the right hand motion. And that’s what you’ll notice about Knopfler’s strumming hand too. Everyone who has ever played the air guitar riffs for “Sultans of Swing” or “Money For Nothing” in the shower are seduced by their seeming simplicity. Under the arches of those bridges is a world of bends and tweaks that are near impossible to navigate without the same gear for a start.
“It’s not as if I have those kinds of amps (that Mark Knopfler uses) lying around in my garage,” Terence says to Alan Clark during the first rehearsal session. Knopfler uses a bank of amps and equipment, and each piece is doubled up, so that a dedicated engineer can tweak the sound for each specific song. In a live performance, it allows him to switch seamlessly from one set-up to another. For a range of playing styles that encompass the dobro guitar in “Romeo and Juliet” (one of the recent acquisitions Terence has made is a replica of the same guitar) to the acoustic sound of “Private Investigations”, it is not mere extravagance, but a necessity.
Right now the group is rehearsing in a venue set up for Eric Clapton, so there is no shortage of gear. “There’s an aerodrome-sized vault of equipment available,” says Terence, “And someone standing by, waiting to set up for you - it is just surreal. One minute you’re breaking your balls trying to survive as a band, and the next you’re standing with a group of icons who are best friends with Eric Clapton.”
The band Terence established in the UK, Waterhorse, have just finished recording their second album here in South Africa. After leaving the country seven years ago – and a very successful voice career here – Terence settled in Canterbury. The band’s name emerged from the misty canal walks around the town, which also helped tease out new lyrics for their first album. Hoofing cables and equipment and being his own roadie was part of the life he’d chosen. “At least it is a commitment to everything I believe in right now,” he said, when I visited him at his adoptive town a few years ago.
The same kind of blue-collar grittiness is inherent in Dire Straits’s eighties classics. Even the name evokes hard edged Thatcherism: “…and Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t ‘make the scene’ /He’s got a day time job, he’s doing alright” is part of the self-effacing irony behind the song “Sultans of Swing”. If there was ever a more transcendent stroke of genius in a phrase (aside from the one in Paul Simon’s “Graceland” - “The Mississippi delta, shining like a national guitar”), it would have to be from Knopfler’s “Romeo and Juliet”: “All I wanna do is kiss ya, through the bars of a rhyme”.
The music is often disconsolate and searching, like the sax riff in “Latest Trick”. There is a workmanlike note that speaks of alienation in a bout of unemployment after the shipyards closed in Newcastle upon Tyne (Knopfler’s home town). But again that belies the supreme craft and virtuoso handle on the quirky rhythms and playing styles underneath. In a masterclass series he hosted for the BBC, Knopfler mentions that his playing style would make him a guitar teacher’s nightmare: (After initially playing country-blues style, then a piano style with the thumbs and claw hammer thumb picking four beats to the bar … ) “I sort of started playing rhythms … where my fingers are … breaking the rules if you like, coming down onto the lower strings, and the thumbs coming onto the top strings… I’m not doing it the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done.”
It’s not hard to figure out that Terence learnt to play by watching and listening for the most part to Dire Straits. The guitar was his shadow through drama school at Wits. “I was never aiming at achieving anything as an end goal really. It was just there, tapping me on the shoulder every day. I sat in my room and played for an hour in the morning, after lunch and then for an hour at night.” By fourth year, he was working on lyrics. And then a song he’d written for classmate Kate Normington (Jazz Collection) went to number one on the charts. The incremental rise to prominence as an actor - Terence was a lead in the SABC rugby series “The Game” with Gavin Hood and Zane Meas, as well as the political drama “Homeland” took nothing away from the focus he devoted to the guitar. As every actor the world over knows, the purchase you get on a freelance gig is short-lived though. If there is another focus which can be cultivated, alongside the impermanence of that lifestyle, all the better.
Of course, once word is out, the Knopfler loyalists will be ambivalent about this new arrangement - in much the same way as some of the band members felt on the first rehearsal. Like the band though, they will be captivated by the sheer scale of Terence’s craft along with the striking similarity with the front man’s voice. They’ve already hedged their bets to an extent though - the Albert Hall is sold out. DM