First time I heard about Tommy Emmanuel was during the last Steve Vai tour, when Steve was virtually joined by Tommy from an immense video screen acting as the stage backdrop. In the video recording Emmanuel congratulated Steve for the anniversary of his iconic album Passion and Warfare and they both played and traded licks in an acoustic vs. electric guitar duel rendition of “Sisters”. At that moment Steve told the crowd: “Tommy Emmanuel is one of the most inspired acoustic guitar players I have ever seen”. And coming from a man of the stature of Vai, that was not small praise. But to be honest I got sidetracked and did not check on Tommy‘s music. Last week, when I was asked to cover his upcoming show at the wonderful Parker Playhouse theater, I decided to do a bit of the past-due homework, and what I found left me jaw-dropped. Originally from Australia and now situated in Nashville, Emmanuel received his first guitar at the age of 4, and that’s when the Australian native began his journey to becoming one of the world’s most respected and talented guitar players to date. Throughout the making of his legacy, the Aussie has acquired several accolades: a number of awards and honors from Guitar Player magazine, a membership in the Order of Australia from the queen, two Grammy nominations, two ARIA Awards and a performance at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney Australia, amongst others.
After reading all the above I went on and heard some of Tommy’s recordings and saw some YouTube videos. I’ve seen countless of mesmerizing guitar pyrotechnics in the last few years, and just a week before Tommy I had seen and chronicled Al DiMeola , which is arguably considered a guitar-God and one of the most innovative guitar players to ever strum a guitar, so you might be thinking “this is just another review of a different guitarist of thousands out-there”. I’ve got to say that was exactly my initial thinking before sitting in my chair at the beginning of the show.
Tommy had an opening act. A guy named Andy McKee, who is a brilliant guitarist in the percussive finger style mold of Michael Hedges. Andy’s technique and lyricism are impressive, he had great songs and was honestly funny; his set was very enjoyable. After a quick intermission, Tommy walked up to the front of the stage amidst a thunderous ovation.
Describing Tommy’s performance is a daunting task. This man knows how to coax the most expressive melodies, rhythms and counterpoints out of his guitar. Emmanuel produces an array of sounds from his guitar that are not commonly experienced. He directs an orchestra of sounds: one man exploring the bounds of what a single instrument can do. Successfully blending genres such as jazz, blues, classical, latin rock, country and a hint of folk, he put forth a sound of his own. And he is also an unbelievably delightful, upbeat performer with a great sense of humor when interacting with the audience; he and beams with pure pleasure while playing.
With a playing ranging from sweet and touching to absolutely ferocious Emmanuel’s insane finger-picking captivated the crowd. Utilizing every inch of his instrument, Emmanuel could create a melody, rhythm and heavy bass simultaneously — a class-act showing of masterful modern guitar playing. He broke into drum solos on the body of the guitar mid song. He sprinkled fills with a flurry of harmonics. His technique was unmatched and the inventiveness incomparable. With six strings, ten fingers and a whole lot of tricks, he enthralled the audience with his otherworldly playing and naturally entertaining persona, offering us quite possibly the finest demonstration of acoustic guitar playing we have ever seen.
Emmanuel needs to be seen maybe more than heard. His guitar playing is a lot like his laughter, both of which come easy. His relationship with his instrument of choice results in a sound akin to a conversation between old friends. Every cell, every molecule in his body was born and designed to play guitar. Once Eric Clapton stated he is “the world’s best guitarist”. Such a bold statement might not be far from the truth. The reality is nothing prepared me for the spectacle of Tommy Emmanuel live. A lovely evening enjoying a top-notch performance from an extremely talented and special musician: a true honor to experience.