After Mark Knopfler left Dire Straits in 1992 and the band members went their separate ways, keyboardist Alan Clark thought that was the end of that.
He was absolutely convinced that without its superstar frontman, he and the other members of Dire Straits would never play hits like “Sultans of Swing,” “Money for Nothing” and “Brothers in Arms” for concert audiences again.
“I would have bet quite a lot of money on that,” he said one morning this week. “I’d never, ever come across anyone who could replace Mark. I didn’t think it was possible.”
Until they discovered Terence Reis, a handsome South African singer and guitarist that Clark’s girlfriend found on the Internet in much the same way that Journey found its new lead singer, Steve Perry sound-alike Arnel Pineda.
And now, 22 years after the breakup of Dire Straits, Clark and longtime Dire Straits saxophonist Chris White are on their first U.S. tour as the Straits, a seven-piece unit with Reis up front, singing and playing the songs that made Dire Straits one of the biggest bands on the planet for two phenomenal decades, selling more than 120 million albums worldwide.
“He can do that Mark thing very well,” Clark said, speaking from a tour date in Washington, D.C. “He has a unique voice and he can play the guitar like Mark. He’s been a pretty successful actor. I think he can put his Mark Knopfler head on.”
Reviewers seem to agree. London’s Daily Express praised “Reis’ stirling impression of the famous bandana-wearing lead singer.” In South Africa’s Daily Maverick, reviewer Theresa Mallinson wrote: “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 … And it would’ve been hard for the Straits to do better than South Africa’s own Terence Reis.”
Clark had been Dire Straits’ unofficial musical director, joining the band in 1980 as its first keyboard player. He played on every Dire Straits record since “Love Over Gold” in 1982, and co-produced the band’s last studio album, 1991’s “On Every Street.”
After 1985’s “Brothers in Arms,” Dire Straits biggest seller, spending nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, Knopfler took a break from touring, concentrating on solo projects and movie soundtracks. He announced the dissolution of Dire Straits in 1988.
With Dire Straits no more, Clark was asked by Eric Clapton to join his band. He played on Clapton’s “Journeyman” album in 1989 and was happy in his new role with another of Britain’s guitar gods.
“It was the most enjoyable band experience I’ve ever been involved in,” he remembered. “It was a great time to be with him.”
But his Clapton era was short lived. In early 1991, Knopfler resurrected Dire Straits.
“I thought it would be over after ‘Brothers in Arms,'” Clark recalled. “I was quite surprised to get the call to make another record, ‘On Every Street.’ I had to tell Eric Clapton that I had to leave his band. I think I’m the only person to ever do that.”
The revived Dire Straits lasted two more years, then broke up for good.
“I went home and became a normal person,” said Clark, who lives in Cheshire, England, near Manchester. “I played on other peoples’ records and did some music for TV, films and commercials. But I was taking it easy really.”
Then, three years ago, he was asked to bring Dire Straits together for a charity show at Royal Albert Hall in London. All well and good, but that meant finding a stand-in for Knopfler, who had been enjoying a successful solo career and had no interest in revisiting his platinum-plated past.
“I started checking out Dire Straits cover bands, and they were all atrocious,” Clark said with a sigh. “I gave up looking, but my partner, Sheila, kept looking and happened upon Terence (Reis).”
It took Clark a month to track Reis down in South Africa.
“He thought it was a wind-up (prank) for about 30 seconds or so,” Clark remembered, chuckling.
Once Reis was convinced that this was no joke, Clark flew him to England for five days of rehearals before the Straits made their debut at Royal Albert Hall. Not exactly the kind of venue that most bands play for the first time. But it was a triumph.
“The band proved to be so damned good and we went down so well, the show was a phenomenal success,” Clark said. “We thought it would be madness to just leave it, so we did it some more and here we are doing even more.”
As the Straits make their U.S. debut, Clark can’t stress enough that this band is not a tribute group playing the original band’s catalog of classic songs.
“We play most of the songs that people are starved to hear, songs that mean so much to them,” he said. “But when I put this band together, I had no intention of being a cover band. I view this as an extension, a continuation of Dire Straits.”
if you go
What: The Straits
Where: Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley
When: 8 p.m. March 23
Admission: $50 to $55