Introducing the final song of the evening, “It’s Never Too Late,” Tommy Emmanuel explained that it was written for his daughter and that when you enter his home, the first thing you see when walking through the front door is a sign that reads “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.” That kind of pure optimism and sentimentality was the emotional theme of Wednesday night’s performance at South Orange Performing Arts Center. However, the main draw and what filled the seats for this sold-out show was a display of virtuosity on the guitar that is truly unparalleled.
Tommy Emmanuel is a 61-year-old Australian guitarist. He started playing when he was 4, lived his childhood on the road in a travelling band, and has continued down that road ever since. While he has played with Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Doc Watson and Chet Atkins (his main muse), he is relatively unknown compared to other guitarists in the same stratosphere of his abilities. But, a case really can be made for Emmanuel being at the very top of the list of THE most accomplished guitarists in the world.
Personally, I have never seen anyone play who left my jaw on the floor from pure virtuosity as often as him.
The best testament to his power may in fact be YouTube. His “Guitar Boogie” has more than 12 million views. “Classical Gas” has more than 10 million. For instrumental solo acoustic performances, this is an impressive feat. Both of these pieces were played last night, and received some of the loudest audience responses, as they were absolute showstoppers. In fact, throughout the night there were spontaneous bursts of applause and standing ovations as Emmanuel displayed what can only be called otherworldly skill.
In particular, his fingerpicking, use of complex chordal melodies, lightning fast speed and seemingly impossible dexterity were on display throughout the night. And for all the 500-notes-a-minute speed, there wasn’t a mistake or bum note anywhere to be found. You could almost feel the guitarists in the room (myself included) sinking in their seats, wondering where they went wrong and who might be interested in buying their now useless instruments.
When all hope seemed lost for every guitarist in the room, there appeared a ray of hope. Emmanuel, in a moment of spontaneity, realized he was in New Jersey and said he had to play a Springsteen song for the occasion. He played a straight rendition of “I’m on Fire” and … it wasn’t that good! Emmanuel is spot on when conveying joy or hope or love, but he just couldn’t pull off this dark, brooding sexual song in a believable way. I couldn’t have been happier. It reminded me that great music isn’t all about technique and theory and difficulty. It’s about emotion, and nobody does that perfectly every time. Now I could enjoy the show in peace, with a strong resolve to keep my guitars and persevere in my own musically limited way.
“I’m on Fire” really was the only misstep in an otherwise perfect night of music. Emmanuel was funny, talkative and musically devastating. Perhaps what I liked best was that for someone who lives in such a lofty musical space, he was massively aggressive with his instrument. His playing is as much rock ‘n’ roll as it is jazz and country. He strums hard, percussively bangs the body of his guitar to simulate drum parts, and moves like he is in a rock band. The show didn’t have a hint of pretension, and it made the music that much more enjoyable.
I also must mention the opening act Richard Smith. Another incredibly accomplished fingerstyle guitarist, he performed a great set, obviously making a lot of new fans in the room. His wife, Julie Adams, sat in for a couple songs on cello and sounded wonderful as well.
A particularly nice thing I noticed about Smith was that in his whole set, while the musicianship was incredibly advanced, it was never flashy. He’s a very subtle player. At the end of the night, he came back out with Emmanuel to play some Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins songs, and just exploded with a display of speed that was absent from his opening set. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who can hold back such skill and resist the urge to show off just for the sake of showing off. He only brought this out when necessary, and killed it when he did.
Mike Lustig plays guitar in the band Ruth Ruth.