Concert Review: Tommy Emmanuel
Every so often, a musician just has to go catch a genuine touched-by-God talent in concert. It’s vital to occasionally reinforce the desire to practice and improve by witnessing a true master at work. Such was my agenda this evening when we drove off to Terre Haute, IN to see Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, a man the great Chet Atkins declared to be one of the greatest fingerstyle players in the world. Now happily ensconced back at the hacienda, I thoroughly understand why Chet effused so.
We had front-row seats, off to the left but still with a great view of the stage at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Performing Arts Theater in Terre Haute, IN. We were sitting right in front of a small EV speaker, one of several house speakers lining the front of the stage, and which produced amazingly robust sound. And God knows robust would aptly describe Tommy Emmanuel in concert!
People often ask me who my favorite guitar player is, and I have a short list to rattle off, based on genre. Inasmuch as Tom E. pretty much morphs into, amongst and between a veritable boatload of genres, he has to be categorized a little differently. So I’d say Tommy Emmanuel is my favorite gonzo acoustic fingerstyle guitarist who unabashedly throws caution to the wind and utterly shreds as if he were keenly aware that he was destined to die the moment he stepped offstage. His playing is that intense.
Emmanuel cannot be faulted for exhibiting so little restraint. His playing is more than energetic, it’s borderline frantic, but doesn’t come from being desperate to impress. On the contrary, watching him perform, it’s abundantly clear that his kinetic exuberance for attacking the guitar melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and VERY quickly is a direct reflection of an insatiable joie de vivre, a zest for life that is readily seen in the sparkle of his eyes when he plays. The man smiles and laughs at the slightest provocation, and would seem one of the most genuinely happy guys in the world. Such a blessing could not help but permeate anyone’s playing, and it certainly forms the root of Emmanuel’s joyful noise.
At one point he said, “you know, people often ask me where I live, and I always say “nowhere’… as in ‘now’ & ‘here’. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? But tonight, I am right here, right now. This is my home, up here, and now I’m playing for you.”
One tune he performed (dedicating it to Les Paul) was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. TE’s deft handling of the melody and chords would be enough for most fingerpickers, but that lingering, rising and falling cascade of artificial harmonics (ala Lenny Breau) is something else. I’ve been known to pull off similar riffs, but TE raises the bar on execution several degrees. That particular technique is very hard to do, and if you manage to ascend and descend the scale once without duffing a harmonic or missing the alternate string with your ring finger, you’re doing well. To ascend and descend time after time, so quick and clean, with NO duffed harmonics or dropped notes, making the guitar sound more like a glissed harp than a plucked guitar… well, it’s mind-boggling, frankly, and perhaps more than any other trick he pulls out of the hat demonstrates the level of devoted practice and attention to detail TE brings to bear on his instrument.
Kudos should also go to Rick Price, Tommy’s Aussie bud who opened the show and also joined Tommy at the end of the show for a rousing finale of classic chestnuts (Taking It To The Streets by the Doobs, Wake Up Little Susie by the Everly Bros, and Dream Baby by Roy Orbison among them). Price is an excellent songwriter, competent acoustic guitarist and pianist, and has an utterly splendid tenor voice. The two of them are a fantastic team, and present a lesson on how a couple of very talented guys with a couple of acoustic guitars can, in fact, rock the house.
I have several guitar playing buddies who have seen Tommy Emmanuel live before, but this was my first opportunity to witness him myself, and I have to say that it was one of the most musically satisfying and entertaining three hours I’ve ever spent. I would think it so for anyone, but for a guitar player… well, catching Emmanuel live was a real treat.
Tommy scurried off to his tour bus after the show, so I was a little disappointed I didn’t have a chance to muscle my way into a photo op, but one shouldn’t complain. The man played his ass off for a solid two hours solo, plus the finale with Price. Given the intensity he brings to his music, I would think doing a show would be exhausting enough without glad-handing every guitar player in the house hoping some Emmanuel mojo might rub off.
As it is, I copped some mojo, anyway. Being that close to a true master of the guitar is always a cool thing, and if you know enough about guitar and music to actually understand the ideas that inform his playing (even if there’s no way in hell you could actually play it yourself), you can’t help but walk away inspired, with an enhanced view of what is possible on our instrument. I came home and, as dear wifey crashed on her couch, I pulled my favorite guitar close and bent a few rules myself. I have a feeling that’s what Tommy would have done.