That Tommy Emmanuel, he’s a charmer, that one. “I’ve had lots of requests tonight”, he informs the audience “but I’m going to keep playing anyway”.
The ever popular Australian guitarist has been visiting Celtic Connections regularly for some years, and with each successive visit, his audience and his billing grows. On 23rd January Emmanuel was the main attraction at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, following a mesmeric set from South African classical guitarist Derek Gripper (read the review here). Judging by the enthusiasm of his reception, and the size of the audience, Tommy’s quite an attraction.
Tommy Emmanuel is a showman; he plays blues, rockabilly and just about every other popular guitar style you could think of at break-neck speed, with pin-point accuracy, and with a flair and awareness of showmanship that would put P. T. Barnum to shame. Mind you, he’s been at it a while, Emmanuel, now in his 60’s, has been playing professionally since the age of 6 when he started life on the road with his father and brothers.
Tommy is a veritable one-man band as his guitar provides melody, harmony, bass and even percussion while he races through three opening numbers. Among a whirlwind of blues, ragtime and rock the music thunders by like an express train – frantic, gentle, energetic and even uplifting. More often he plays his own compositions, and he finds inspiration in a wide variety of sources, like a new song called ‘Ava Waits’, inspired by the heart-breaking scene in Bridge Of Spies where families suddenly find themselves parted forever by the Berlin Wall. Yes, he has his reflective moments too. Johnny Cash‘s Hurt follows Once I Had a Secret Love picked out among ornate and mellow meanderings. Over The Rainbow made an appearance too, with a tinge of Country to it and a Flamenco flourish.
In a more lively vein, The Tall Fiddler was written in honour of Oklahoma fiddler Byron Berline, a lovely touch of bluegrass that would make a fine (if somewhat challenging) fiddle tune. Playing guitar at the breakneck speed requires split-second timing and a sense of rhythm that moves beyond instinct. He proves he has both, of course, with a percussion display involving a drummer’s brush, just about every inch of his guitar’s surface and, by the look of it, an extra three arms.
Before closing on a polka so fast the risk to life and limb for anyone actually trying to dance to it would be considerable, Tommy once again displayed his tender side. A good friend of Scottish guitar maestro Martin Taylor, Tommy played an emotional rendition of Taylor’s tribute to his son, Stuart’s Song. It isn’t often a slow number, in a set like this, will bring a crowd to their feet.
The contrast with the previous set from Derek Gripper couldn’t be more marked. Gripper is laid back; seated, almost motionless; speaks in soft tones about his music and is quietly masterful of the fretboard. Tommy Emmanuel is more animated than the Road Runner, loves to tell his stories and both hands scurry up and down the neck of his guitar like a super-sonic Liberace on a Steinway grand.
It takes quite a performer to move a packed auditorium from a hand clapping, foot-stomping frenzy to a rapt, silent hush on the turn of a sixpence. Tommy Emmanuel, though, with his mix of guitar and people skills, is the very man for the job. An outright charmer.