I remember flipping through the channels one night just a few years ago and I landed on PBS where they were broadcasting a Tommy Emmanuel live concert. I dropped the remote and picked it up off the floor along with my jaw. Holy mother of Jimi Hendrix! This Australian bloke was the most entertaining and charming acoustic guitar player I’d ever seen. How could I have not known about him? I am a diehard music lover and former deejay and music director at WRSI radio (which evolved into 939 The River) where we were always on the lookout for insanely talented people like this. I did have some vague memory of the name “Tommy Emmanuel” and the fact that he had played the Calvin Theater in Northampton not too long ago, but that was it. Maybe it was an Australian under-the-radar phenomenon.
After some research I came up with a theory. Tommy Emmanuel was a mere virtuoso who became a bonafide genius when he started to focus on recording and performing live, solo and acoustic around 2005. Listening to his albums recorded in the studio is pleasant but not exciting, one step away from dentist office music. Whereas when he plays live, the music crackles with seat-of-your-pants energy and audience rapport. When I went back and started listening to his catalogue of albums online I realized that I had heard one of the highly varnished studio recordings back in the ‘90s and that’s what had thrown me off his trail.
As to playing solo, Tommy (let’s call him Tommy, not Mr. Emmanuel) is such a wizard fingerpicker that a band is extraneous. When he really gets flying, the audience enjoys the delicious cognitive dissonance that the visual evidence of one performer on stage is being contradicted by the complexity of the music being produced. Somehow all this music is being played in real time, by one person, without loops. On top of all that, Tommy is such a physically engaging presence and likeable fellow. He sways to the music, smiles at the fun of it all and tells stories in a friendly, down-under drawl.
And there is no need for an electric. I have never seen anybody be more creative with an acoustic guitar than Tommy Emmanuel. He explores every inch of the guitar. He plays it quiet and loud, slow and fast, sweet and dirty. He uses flamenco flurries, jazz harmonies, and bluesy bends. His piece de resistance arrives late in the set when he uses the acoustic guitar as a drum. He beats on the upper body of the guitar with his left hand and uses a drummer’s brush in his right to swipe at the head of his vocal mike. Then he drops the brush and starts to whomp up some amazing polyrhythms on the guitar body with both hands, occasionally flecking the strings past the nut in a whirlwind of motion.
Last night Tommy Emmanuel played the Academy of Music in Northampton and I took my 16 year-old son Chris and three members of his indie-rock band, Court Etiquette. These youngsters were vastly outnumbered by the gray-haired PBS audience that filled the venue. Joe Robinson opened the show with tasty set of songs featuring his virtuoso guitar playing. The 25 year-old, black-hatted Robinson came off as essentially Tommy Emmanuel, Jr., which I mean as a compliment. Like his mentor, Robinson was devilishly dexterous, a gifted composer and Australian. He sang an original about “Adelaide” and played wicked solos over looped guitar riffs. Robinson even had a party trick of playing two guitars at once, with an electric sitting on top of his acoustic. Very Tommy.
After intermission the master strolled out on stage. As good as Joe Robinson was you could tell the difference. When Tommy Emmanuel started playing the music was a little deeper, more spacious and sure. Tommy was so in love with the music and the guitar, that you could not resist. Among the myriad highlights of his set were the flamenco inflected “El Vaquero” and a gorgeous new instrumental called “Never Too Late.” “ I was staying with our friends in Boston and in their kitchen they had a sign that said ‘It’s never too late…to have a happy ending,” said the 61 year-old Tommy who mentioned he is the father of a two-year old. “And it’s never too late to have a baby, “ quipped Tommy.
“Anybody out there like the Rolling Stones?” asked Tommy. “Here’s my Beatles medley,” said the cheeky Aussie. Thought the show he alternated tender ballads with finger-busting numbers like “Guitar Boogie” and his show-stopping drum-on-the-guitar bit. The simplest guitar song all night was his version of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song, that Tommy sang with a heartfelt simplicity. Near the end he brought out Joe Robinson for some beautiful duets on tunes like the country classic “Windy and Warm.” The only fly in the ointment all night was the over-the-top coconut-scented stage smoke and the laser light show that occasionally shone right in the audience’s eyeballs like we were being interrogated.
All in all, it was a wonderful night at the Academy of Music. My son and his buddies were blown away. I kept thinking of Harry Houdini and all the amazing acts who have played at the Academy over the years. Tommy would have fit right in with Houdini.
Here’s a bit of Tommy Emmanuel’s “Beatles Medley” as performed at the Academy of Music in Northampton on March 5, 2017.