Tommy Emmanuel Live at the Ulster Hall
There surely can’t be a guitar fan in the world who doesn’t know of Tommy Emmanuel. The iconic Chet Atkins called him a “fearless” guitarist and designated him (along with just 4 others) as an Atkins CGP (Certified Guitar Player), a title Emmanuel is immensely proud of. He has twice been voted “Best Acoustic Guitarist” by readers of Guitar Player Magazine and honoured with the prestigious “Member of the Order of Australia” award. The State of Kentucky recently made him a “Kentucky Colonel.”
Previously a rock n’ roll lead guitarist, touring successfully in the 1970s, he turned his attention to the acoustic guitar and become a jaw-droppingly good virtuoso finger picker, now widely acknowledged as the international master of the solo acoustic guitar. Emmanuel has mastered just about every guitar style imaginable and his albums and shows have featured virtuosic displays of bluegrass, jazz, blues, folk, country and pop and he’s played with a who’s who of top guitar masters from every genre of modern music.
The 64-year-old Australian is a dynamic, energetic performer, who plays to large audiences in prestigious venues all over the world, dazzling them with his skill and enchanting them with his personal charm.
He played the Ulster Hall in Belfast, an iconic venue with excellent acoustics, and which dates back to 1862 and along the way has hosted Charles Dickens reading his stories, Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, Dire Straits, Jackson Browne and a host of top classical orchestras. Here’s what we learned:
1. Tommy Emmanuel might just be the best guitarist you’ll ever see, in any genre. I know it doesn’t make too much sense to compare top players, but you’ll rarely see another guitarist with the technique, musicality and flair that marks a Tommy Emmanuel performance. Last night he was playing with an injured finger on his right hand. He never mentioned it and never let it affect his jaw-droppingly amazing playing.
2. It is possible for one man and a guitar to keep an audience of 2,000 utterly enthralled for nigh on two hours. Assuming he can enchant them with wonderful music and dazzle them with consummate skill (I know I’m gushing a bit here, but still…). English fingerstyle guitarist, Clive Carroll, who was the supporting act (go check him out here) more than held his own, both in his own set and the couple of songs he and Tommy played together. His evocation of a Canadian arctic circle white-out, with its masterful use of dynamics, had us right there in the snowy wilderness, while his arrangement of Charles Mingus’s Goodbye Porkpie Hat was a jazzy wonder.
3. You’ll never hear a more stunning version of Amazing Grace than Emmanuel’s. After reminiscing about his first visit to a small, packed club in Belfast many years ago, he commented on the sense of calm and peace he felt in tonight’s venue – then launched into a wondrous, jazzy, bluesy rendition of Amazing Grace.
4. Yes, it is possible to play an entire song in harmonics (crudely speaking, harmonics are “high pitched tones, like a whistle’s, which are produced when the musician lightly touches certain points on a string”). They’re not easy to do, but to do all over the fretboard, fast and with precision and musicality, is only for premier league guitarists. Quite amazing to witness.
5. Tommy Emmanuel can sing. Just a couple of songs along the way, notably Merle Travis’s Sixteen Tons put the spotlight on his vocal ability, though, of course, some guitar pyrotechnics were thrown in for good measure.
6. A few covers always go down well. I’m not a great Beatles fan, but when the songs get put in a medley with the Tommy Emmanuel treatment, I can warm to them. And then when they morph into Classical Gas, well, it’s pretty special.
7. Irish diddly dee music doesn’t have to be dull and repetitive. When you’ve got top-class artists approaching it with musicality and a high level of skill, suddenly it becomes…well, enjoyable. The Donegal and St. Anne’s reels played by Emmanuel and Carroll.
8. Finally, Tommy Emmanuel is one of the most positive of musicians. His enthusiasm for the music and performing oozes out of every pore. You find yourself smiling again and again. Go to his Facebook page and read some of the remarkable posts there about the effect this man and his music has on people.