Terence Reis on ‘making it cry and sing’ with The Straits

By Theresa Mallinson 1 June 2011

It's one thing being asked to join The Straits as frontman, essentially standing in for Mark Knopfler. It's quite another pulling it off. Only someone hugely talented, with the requisite technical ability and, most importantly, the right attitude could wield that plectrum. And it would've been hard for The Straits to do better than SA's own Terence Reis. By THERESA MALLINSON.

A few years ago Terence Reis briefly rehearsed with a Dire Straits tribute band, aptly named The Dire Straits Tribute Band. Nothing further came of his involvement with that project. “I think there were about five rehearsals,” Reis says. “We never gigged.” However, the dummy website still names him as a band member. “It’s one of the great mythologies,” he says.

The true story of Reis’s involvement with Dire Straits or, more correctly, their latest incarnation, The Straits, is much more fantastical. Earlier this year Reis received a call from keyboardist Alan Clark, asking him to join the band for a charity gig at the Royal Albert Hall. And on 22 May there he was, playing to a 3,500-strong audience. “The first thing that struck me going on stage was this fizz in the air. It was really potent,” Reis says.

“We had a couple of warm-up gigs [and…] the response we got from the warm-up audiences, we just couldn’t believe it. That said, I wasn’t convinced it was necessarily going to translate to the Albert… You know, when you get that kind of heat behind an event, it’s very different from a warm-up gig. It can go both ways: It can maybe collapse in on itself, the weight of expectations undermines it; but… it was the other way round.” 

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Before the show there was a lot of vitriol on various Internet forums, as some fans were personally affronted by the concept of Dire Straits sans Knopfler. Reis was prepared for this, and he’s kept away, as much as possible, from the Internet before and after the show, although he does go so far as to say the “people who complain weren’t there”. The major newspapers and music magazines have yet to run a review – at least one that’s online. But, by judging by most of the fans who were there, as well as the band themselves, the show was something of a triumph. As Clark wrote on his website: “[I]t was a resounding success. I’ve played there many times in my career, but I’ve never seen such a response from the audience as they gave us that night.”

For those who weren’t there, most of the songs are available on YouTube, where you can listen for yourself. There have been mixed reactions, but the overwhelming vibe has been positive. The opinions broadly fit into one of two categories: Fans for whom a Knopfler-less Straits will never be good enough; and more reflective types who try to respond to The Straits for what they are today. Of course, with The Straits exclusively playing the Dire Straits back catalogue, it was a delicate task to represent the legacy without falling into parody.

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Reis’s approach to the situation reflected this conundrum. “It was not about being Mark. I think that would be a big mistake,” he says. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, by every criteria you could throw at the definition, Mark Knopfler’s a genius. At the end of the day he’s charismatically emblematic – he’s a totem in a way. I’m not. As such, even if on a night [I] played in such a way, and I said to you, ‘listen to these two, which one’s the real Dire Straits?’, and you go, ‘I really don’t know’ – that’s not the point. It’s the fact that I’m not him.

“A friend of mine said the thing about the naysayers, because Mark isn’t there, it presents an interesting premise. The premise being that if this music isn’t played by this singular man on the planet, it doesn’t have validity.” Reis sees it differently, about being true to the music and Dire Straits, rather than Knopfler.

“It’s the kind of music that’s always about honouring the music, as opposed to ‘being’ a person,” he says. However, Reis is very aware of Knopfler’s personal traits. “He’s someone who comes with an awful lot of qualities that are instantly recognisable: semi-spoken lyrics, beautiful way of playing, instantly recognisable guitar vocabulary… I was always very cautious from the outset of the danger of parody.

“You run this kind of weird corridor. If you copy every lick from the record, and learn every – if that’s a word – ‘Knopflerism’, and shoehorn them into every song, on the one hand, people are just going to say: ‘Well, all you’ve done is learnt something verbatim and spouted it back’. Or you go the other way, where you don’t do enough, people go: ‘Well, you clearly can’t do it; it’s not legitimate’.”

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Reis drew on his experience as an actor to negotiate this delicate balance. “The best way I can explain it is learning someone’s accent. It doesn’t really matter what you say, when you speak you sound like that person. When you’re playing a role, you just want people to believe that what you’re doing fits; you don’t have to dress like him or wear a headband or throw in lines that he’s done. That’s not the point. It’s not about following something absolutely.”

This approach paid off. “It seems, certainly from the response, the decision was the right one,” Reis says. “The comment I’m probably most satisfied with is when people say ‘We’re so glad you didn’t just rip off Mark Knopfler’.”

Reis is humble about the opportunity. “For an evening where I got to borrow someone else’s fans for a while, it’s quite a rush.” he says. “You’re custodians of someone else’s legacy; it’s not my legacy… If at any point it ever does become me, we’d have to do something else other than just playing the back catalogue. Why I say that is because we’re playing to fans of Dire Straits… If people who have never seen, never heard of Dire Straits come to see us… that’s something else. We’ll see.”

For now, there are no firm offers of more shows, although Reis will return to the UK in a couple of weeks to rehearse more with The Straits. He’s pragmatic about the situation. “We have a rather lovely management. I understand people have been speaking to them… It’s not really up to us. If promoters come up and say we want to book you and it’s worthwhile, then we’ll go ‘Okay’, but if nobody comes, we can’t blame them – it’s the brutality of the industry.”

Whatever happens in the future, Reis feels it was a privilege to play the Royal Albert Hall with The Straits. “I remember when we went off stage; and we just heard this thunder, and the whole place was like: ‘RAAAH!’ We finished the encore, and whoever it was in the front took a camera and swung it round the room. A couple of rows back, you see a couple just looking at each other, giving each other a kiss. That moment, was just a ‘Wow’. They obviously had such a good time that just spilt into their personal life, and that, to me, meant an awful lot.” DM

You can next catch Terence Reis performing in South Africa with the Cuban Doctors at Tanz Cafe on 30 July.

Read more:

  • Maybe get a blister on your thumb: SA guitarist to front for Dire Straits, at the Daily Maverick.
  • When Dire Straits call, the day-time job don’t matter, a column by Ashley Dowds at Daily Maverick.


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