Certified Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel at the Heartwood Soundstage
A Tommy Emmanuel show is a unique experience. There are not many performers that can stand alone on a stage and play for hours while keeping the audience following his every move. One of only five players granted the “Certified Guitar Player” label by Chet Atkins, who was his primary influence, the Australian prodigy began playing guitar at age 4. His recordings with Atkins are legendary, and his most recent release, Accomplice One, finds him playing with Jason Isbell, Mark Knopfler, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, Amanda Shires, Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Simo, David Grisman, Bryan Sutton, Suzy Bogguss and others.
Tommy Emmanuel has been holed up like everyone else for the past year of Covid-19. His show at the Heartwood Soundstage was only his third live event in the last year, but he hasn’t lost a bit. It’s difficult to provide a description of his style, but it’s based on fingerpicking in the Atkins/Travis style. The ability to play bass lines as well as lead lines and chords at the same time is one thing that sets him apart from other great guitar players, and this is rooted in his exposure to Chet Atkins music as a youngster. But while Chet was a low-key entertainer, Emmanuel is anything but. He attacks the songs he plays….aggressively, with a no-holds-barred approach. He’s a showman as well. He also played drums and he works percussion into many of his songs, especially his Beatles/Classical Gas medley that ends with a three minute percussive light show that always brings audiences to their feet. Emmanuel is an engaging performer, using humor frequently and he’s also known for being fan-friendly. And while he primarily lets his guitar make his statement, his occasional vocals are perfectly mixed into his sets.
Along with that medley, his sets at Heartwood included a mix of his original tunes and classics. His original songs (“Fuel”, “It’s Never Too Late to Live”, “Halfway Home” and a moving song called “Blood Brother”, written in honor of war veterans and the organization Guitars for Vets, which he supports) were moving and evocative. Many of his songs are actually combinations of several songs, including this clip that includes “Deep River Blues”, “Doc’s Guitar”, “Blue Smoke” and “Cannonball Rag” (keen observers will notice him shedding his capo at 2:40).
The night also included classics such as “Windy and Warm,” “Blue Moon”, “Smoky Mountain Lullaby”, “Roll On Buddy”, and his wild and wooly improvisational version of Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie.” One highlight for many was his version of “Michelle” which is largely played with harmonics; this left the many guitar players in the crowd shaking their heads. As one musician said to me “many of these people just don’t know how hard this is to do.”
The show at Heartwood was unique; the first set was intimate and indoors for a limited number of ticket holders, but was broadcast to a larger audience outside. Then Tommy braved the heat and humidity (as he noted, both are the natural enemies of acoustic guitars) and came outside for a long second set. He received several standing ovations in both settings. In spite of the conditions, it was clear he fed off the larger outside audience, and they were exuberantly supportive of him as well. It was a great way to return to indoor shows at Heartwood; this was the first indoor show in 14 months in the area’s premier listening room.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see Tommy several times, and I’ve never seen anyone walk away from one of his shows who wasn’t gushing praise. He is a truly unique talent, and if you get an opportunity to see him live, by all means do it. You won’t be disappointed.