The talented Chris White on Live Aid, Dire Straits and that walk of life

IN HIS ELEMENT: Chris White is bringing The Dire Straits Experience to Newcastle's Civic Theatre on September 29.
IN HIS ELEMENT: Chris White is bringing The Dire Straits Experience to Newcastle's Civic Theatre on September 29.

If one date sticks in saxophonist Chris White’s mind it’s July 13, 1985. Not only was it his 30th birthday, but his band Dire Straits performed at Live Aid in London with some of the biggest names in music to raise money for starving children in Ethiopia.

In front of 72,000 fans – and with millions more watching on television – Dire Straits performed alongside Status Quo, Style Council, Boomtown Rats, Adam Ant, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Elvis Costello, Nik Kershaw, Sade, Sting, Phil Collins, Howard Jones, Bryan Ferry, Paul Young, U2, Dire Straits, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Elton John, Freddie Mercury with Brian May and Paul McCartney. 

At the same time, a similarly star-studded line-up was performing for a Live Aid crowd of 100,000 at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Pennsylvania.

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White chuckles softly at the memory. 

“We did Live Aid in the afternoon at Wembley Stadium and then walked across the car park and did our own show at Wembley Arena that night. We were in the middle of a 13-date run at the arena. As the other artists finished their sets at the stadium they’d wander across to our show. We had a lot of guests playing with us that night. It was fantastic. An amazing day.”

White is a quietly spoken, polite and unassuming kind of guy. Humble, even. His first real break in the music industry came in 1981 when he was asked to play on Nick Heyward’s album North Of A Miracle. He went on to play and record with artists like Paul McCartney, Aztec Camera, Chris DeBurgh, The The and Mark Knopfler, the latter leading to what he is best known for – the saxophone sound of Dire Straits. His work with Dire Straits included the Brothers in Arms and On Every Street world tours, the On Every Street and On The Night albums, and the legendary Live Aid and Mandela concerts. More recently, he has also played on two of Knopfler’s solo albums and recorded and toured with Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Suggs and Robbie Williams.

“I’m just glad people liked sax solos in the ’80s. It kept me busy,” White says.

“I started with soundtracks and spent quite a few years running around the studios of London filling gaps in albums or soundtracks. I then started working with people like Paul [McCartney] and Mark [Knopfler] which took things in quite a different direction for me.”

It’s 11pm in the UK when Weekender calls and White has just poured himself a “very large cup of black coffee” to prepare for a run of phone interviews about The Dire Straits Experience Show. This is not a tribute act. It’s a group of world-class musicians celebrating a musical legacy.

Knopfler and Dire Straits permanently parted ways in 1995 but their music has never waned in popularity. The band has more than 120 million album sales to their name and this continues to increase as a new generation of fans discover the music.

White and his crew bring the music to life, reigniting hits like Money for Nothing, Walk of LifeSo Far Away, Brothers in Arms, Sultans of Swing, Romeo and Juliet, Tunnel of Love, Telegraph Road, Private Investigations and Twisting By the Pool.

“For me, the show has to be the best it can possibly be and I have to say, I’m really grateful to the guys in the band,” White says. 

“I’m really proud of the way the band works and sounds. I’d stand with this band anywhere in the world, in any musical company. 

“We’re not trying to copy every note played by Dire Straits. One of the secrets to Dire Straits when I was working with Mark is that the set and the songs would change every night. 

“The guys in The Dire Straits Experience are professionally competent and brave enough to do that, too.”

Speaking of the songs, we talk about Money For Nothing. Some of the references might be a little dated – microwave ovens and colour TVs – but the underlying message is as relevant today as it was when Knopfler wrote it. 

“That’s part of Mark’s genius – which is a bit of a big label to put on someone – but the guy was able to capture moments like that and also present them in a way that you get what it is he was saying,” White says.

“I think that’s one of the reasons people still want to come and see and hear these songs – because the lyrics are in many ways still current.”

Terence Reis fills Knopfler’s shoes in The Dire Straits Experience and White reckons they are a perfect fit: “I didn’t think it would be possible but Terence is just amazing, and he just sounds like that. He’s not trying to copy Mark or put it on. He was such an amazing discovery. Such a coincidence.”

The show has, White says, “really taken off” in the past 18 months. 

“We’re playing regularly to crowds from 3000 to 8000 a show which means we can now bring a lighting designer with us on tour, which is great. I’ve met a lot of people from the 1985 and ’86 tour of Australia. It’s quite incredible. They saw us back then and are coming again, and in some cases bringing their children or grandchildren.

“It’s been a lot of fun over the years, I must say. I’ve been lucky ... very lucky.”

Catch The Dire Straits Experience at Necwcastle’s Civic Theatre on September 29. Tickets are on sale now.