I first came across Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel about four years ago learning about Travis picking (a form of fingerstyle playing). And ever since I wondered what it would be like to see the great man in person because -and this is not hyperbole- numerous Youtube videos suggest he’s something quite special.
When I remarked to my girlfriend “ooh look, Tommy Emmanuel is playing Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Monday January 23” she was all like “I can take a hint, let’s grab some tickets and head along”. And so it came to pass I spent just over 100 minutes in the company of one of the best musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing live.
As the show kicks off with songs Half Way Home and Angelina the first thing one notices about Tommy is he’s much taller than expected; after greeting the crowd with a cordial -if not original- “good evening Glasgow!” he cuts a confident and dominating presence as songs Blood Brothers and Merle Travis Medley rumble by with percussive smacks and technical brilliance.
On that note for a second. I’ve heard Mr Emmanuel gets annoyed when asked why he is so technically accomplished. “Get to work!” he might be heard to brusquely say. Let’s hammer home the obvious: a craft like this is forged from the age of four over countless thousands of hours practice; a lifetime of sacrifice.
Despite the virtuoso flourishes there are moments of reflection. Self-penned song Lewis & Clark, a cover of Johnny Cash’s Hurt and a Martin Taylor collaboration, Secret Love, provide calmer moments. An ephemeral cover of Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow reinforce, that despite all the posturing and flair, a real heart beats behind these delightful arrangements.
It’s not long before Tommy is back in the groove though. “I think it’s boogie-woogie time!” announces the guitarist and serves as reference to Guitar Boogie, a signature jam in Emajor and a staple of his shows. It is a tune played with such metronomic precision that one forgets there is only one person on stage; a song as demanding of rhythm and beat as it is of melody and harmony.
“This is ridiculous” I think, as Tall Fiddler – erm, a tune about a tall fiddler – leaves my girlfriend and I in slack-jawed awe. “He’s really good isn’t he!” says girlfriend. Uh, yeah, I guess.
A standing ovation, an encore, and Tommy finishes with a song in memory of a lost son. An interesting choice for sure. But you know what? One that fits an evening of oscillating extremes and contrasting emotions.
And I’ve been trying to finish this last paragraph for ages but I can’t. I keep wanting to say Emmanuel is both reflective and restless. Yet there’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever that something else is, I know I have just witnessed something rather special.