The question I kept asking myself following Tommy Emmanuel’s astonishing display of fretboard mastery at the Palace Theatre earlier this month was simply, “Why did he bother to bring along a band?”
Although the 55-year-old Australian guitar great has toured the U.S. numerous times – including a stop at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in February ’10 (read our review here) – his current concert tour marked a number of firsts:
1) his first U.S. tour playing electric guitar
2) his first U.S. tour with his brother
3) his first U.S. tour with a band
But the truth of the matter is that he didn’t need any of those things to boggle the minds of the guitar fans at the Palace. He does it all by himself. Emmanuel is a certified virtuoso, quite capable of making his lone acoustic guitar sound like a full band. In fact, that’s exactly what he did during an unbelievable display of fretboard finesse on Merle Travis’ classic “Nine Pound Hammer” – dancing through nimble bass lines with his thumb, a spirited variation on the melody in addition to some imaginative fills with his fingers, and then rubbing his fingers across the face of the guitar to simulate the brushes-on-snare rhythmic effect.
In his opening solo segment, he shifted from western music (“Cowboy’s Dream”) to a Travis medley (including “Sixteen Tons” and “Guitar Rag”) to a blues tune (“One Mint Julep,” oh-so apropos on Kentucky Derby Day) and a lengthy Beatles medley (that opened with a twinkling rendition of “Here Comes the Sun,” wrapped around “When I’m 64,” “She’s a Woman” and “Day Tripper” before closing it out with a honky tonkin’ strut through “Lady Madonna”).
After that, he brought out a four-piece band – including Simon Hosford in the unenviable position of being a guitarist on stage with Emmanuel – and tore through some rip-snorting rock & roll, such as “The Hunt” and “Cantina Senese.”
The second half of the show started out with the two brothers – Emmanuel and his older brother Phil, who Tommy explained “was always the lead guitarist, while I played rhythm” – and they wound through some old ’60s twang-tunes by the Shadows, some Mozart and novelty vaudeville routine where both of them played the same guitar at the same time.
Then Phil took over and led the band through Peter Frampton’s “Off the Hook” and a hard-rockin’ boogie rendition of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
But the magic was gone – at least for me. There are dozens and dozens of bands with hot-shot guitarists. That doesn’t impress me. But Tommy Emmanuel was a true zen guitar master all by himself. The music – and the magic – seemed to become diluted once he started sharing with other musicians on stage. Which is not to say that the other musicians weren’t good players. Quite the contrary. But Emmanuel didn’t need them. And in the end, they seemed quite superfluous.
My other review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Tommy Emmanuel then returned to the stage for a few more solo numbers, turning in one of the evening’s finest performances on an instrumental ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ His intricate fingerpicking and the subsequent overtones created evoked a harp during the opening and closing salvos. ‘The Trails,’ a piece influenced by Navajo flute playing, followed next, combining Native American musical themes with Middle Eastern and country.
After a percussion solo with Emmanuel playing his guitar and microphone with a drum brush, the band took the stage again to close out the evening on a rocking note. Phil rejoined the party for ‘Missing,’ an ode to the brothers’ mom, and the spacey ‘Back on Terra Firma,’ before the whole band raised the roof on a blues jam that found Emmanuel running to nearly every instrument onstage to play a solo.”