Tommy Emmanuel, June 7
Jason introduced me to the music of Tommy Emmanuel, a guitarist from Australia whose playing is beyond superb. I recently had the chance to see him perform in the Regatta Bar, an intimate venue in Cambridge. Going to concerts alone is something I'm comfortable with, and it also increases my chances of getting a good seat. This concert was no exception; my seat was at a table about eight feet from the stage. I shared the table with a cute older couple who had driven "all the way from Framingham" to see Tommy. (Framingham is about twelve miles away) They were lovely. They were also friends of Tommy, which made for some fascinating conversation and some great storytelling on their part. That is, until the people sitting at the table to my immediate left showed up.
They were... well, not lovely. In fact, they were downright annoying up until the show started. The wife kept blabbering on and on about how she "didn't really like folk, jazz, or blues," but that people "bow at the feet of her husband when he plays his guitar." The husband, who bore a strange resemblance to a very fat James Hetfield, seemed embarrassed at her comments. However, he then started talking and bragging about his guitar prowess. He apparently is able to play both necks of his 12/6 doubleneck simultaneously. If I hadn't been committed to my table, I would've simply walked away. Their son (they do get bonus points for bringing their ten-year-old son) seemed seriously mortified that he was there with his parents; thankfully he didn't say a word. (by the way, there is nothing more metal than James Hetfield with a banjo. NOTHING.)
Then the show started, much to the audience's delight. The opener was a young guitarist named Kieran Murphy - he showed off some great chops during his three numbers. One tune was reminiscent of the gaudy-yet-wonderful themes from James Bond and Secret Agent Man; I could almost see the action sequence unfolding as he played the song. He was a great opener - didn't say much, played three good songs, thanked everyone for coming to the show, and left.
As Kieran left the stage, Tommy strolled on, cool as a member of the Rat Pack. He said some complimentary words about Kieran - and it turns out that they're both from the same small town in Australia. Perhaps there's something in the water. Anyway, he grabbed his beat-up guitar and went to work... and the man can play.
Watching him perform is a very unique experience. I go to quite a few shows and see a lot of musicians do their thing. There are many times when, although I certainly can't do what the guitarist or bassist does, I understand it and might one day be able to do it with a lot of practice. Those are the kind of shows where afterward I come home and play my guitar for an hour. Tommy, on the other hand, does things with a guitar that I simply don't understand/believe. His guitar playing - much like Vic Wooten's bass playing - elevates the game to a whole new level. These are the kind of shows that make me want to give up guitar altogether and take up golf. Thankfully that feeling dissipates after a day or so (and perhaps it's a good thing that those kind of shows are few and far between).
One of the highlights was a tune called "Mombasa", a song he'd written while visiting Kenya doing work with schoolchildren. Apparently the inspiration for the song came as he was riding along in a jeep in the Rift Valley. He showed the full range of his talent on that song, using the guitar as a percussion instrument in a frenzied "drum solo" in the middle of the tune. If you have nine minutes to spare, check out this interview (first 2 minutes) and performance (7 minutes). Seriously good stuff.
Tommy told the audience that one of his favorite artists is Billy Joel; he respects the songwriting and melodies. Although Billy's instrument of choice is obviously the piano, certain pieces would undoubtedly be just as successful on guitar. Tommy's cover of "And So It Goes" was note-for-note perfect.
One of the most poignant moments came when Tommy introduced his song "Angelina," written for his older daughter. He spoke for a few minutes about the amount of touring that he does (300+ shows per year, six continents) and the distance he feels as a father from his daughters, who live in England. Tommy tried to mask his longing to be with them by telling a few random jokes ("I'll have the alligator, and make it snappy!"), but from my vantage point of eight feet away I could tell that there was an inner melancholy. Unaccompanied by guitar, he delicately sang the two verses to "Angelina" and then launched into the song on his instrument. He played with confidence and ease, but there was an underlying sadness behind his eyes that probably remained hidden to most of the crowd.
The consummate entertainer, he talked with audience members between songs, telling jokes and stories about his life on the road. At one point, Tommy noticed that a woman was squinting because a light was shining directly on her; he climbed onto a chair and (rather violently) used his guitar to knock the light away from her.
He closed the show with an audience favorite - a cover of The Beatles' "Day Tripper" segueing into "Lady Madonna" and then into "When I'm Sixty-Four" and back full circle to "Day Tripper." He stunned the uninitiated when, after a few bars of 'piano', he added the bass line simultaneously. His eighty-minute show was exhilarating to watch... and exhausting; he worked hard to do the things he did. What's more impressive was that I saw the 7:30 show; Tommy would have to do another one at 10:00. I bid farewell to my table companions, who were sticking around for the second show - and as a final note, I wrote down the name of a guitarist on their recommendation. There's apparently a young musician named Richard Smith, and on his website there's a quote from none other than Tommy Emmanuel: "If you like my playing, you should hear Richard Smith." That's good enough for me.