June 14, 2013
Rumor has it when Eddie Van Halen, at the height of his career, was asked, “What does it feel like to be the best guitarist in the world?” he responded, “I don’t know. Ask Tommy Emmanuel.” Whether or not this is true, Emmanuel certainly lived up to the title last Friday night at the Music Hall.
A guitarist of ten years, I had mixed feelings of awe and failure, as I realized that I would never be able to make a guitar sing like Emmanuel. Two-time Grammy nominee, Emmanuel is one of Australia’s most respected musicians. The legendary guitarist has a professional career that spans five decades and continues to intersect with some of the finest musicians throughout the world. A household name in his native Australia, Tommy has garnered hundreds of thousands of loyal fans worldwide. Tommy’s unique style – he calls it simply ‘finger style’ – is akin to playing guitar the way a pianist plays piano, using all ten fingers. Rather than using a whole band for melody, rhythm, bass, and drum parts, Tommy plays all that – and more – on one guitar. Guitar legend Chet Atkins was one of the first to inspire Emmanuel to try this ‘fingerpicker’ style as a child. Decades later, Atkins himself became one of Emmanuel’s biggest fans.”
The 600 people who came out to the show Friday night certainly were inspired. I kept getting phone calls the week before the show from fans asking if they could bring their guitars to get signed. I figured it couldn’t hurt but was blown away when over fifty people brought their guitars in toe. We ended up placing most of the guitars in front of the stage, and it made a beautiful image: guitars offered to the guitar king.
South Carolina native Jacob Johnson kicked off the evening. “Johnson sounds like Norman Rockwell paintings and the open road. He is a virtuoso, expressing a working comprehension of dozens of techniques and styles. He has blended and blurred the lines of genres to craft a sound he calls ‘Neo-Acoustic Folk/Funk’.” It was difficult to pinpoint Johnson’s style. His songs were mostly humorous with a lot of spoken word, and his guitar technique went all over the place. However, there is no doubt that Johnson is a virtuoso. He seemed perfectly at home up on the stage, and he wowed the audience with his guitar techniques. By the end of his set, the audience was on their feet; he doubled his record CD sales after the show.
Cool, calm, and collected, Emmanuel whisked into the theater a few hours before the show, tall, lean, and dressed in a floor-length black pea coat in June. He was extremely polite and welcoming and even remembered the names of the Music Hall’s lighting tech, Dany Kapp, and his dog Margaret after two years (Emmanuel played at the Music Hall back in 2011).
He played for almost two hours, from new original songs to a medley of Beatles covers. Periodically, he would offer the audience fast-talking tutorials on his techniques, which were greeted mostly with awed laughter. Above all else, he is a brilliant showman, moving from song to song, and proving no matter what he played, he loved what he was doing.