Tommy Emmanuel, Australian guitarist, played his instrument to a near-packed house at the Tel Aviv Opera House last Tuesday. Best known for his complicated fingerstyle technique, the two-time Grammy nominee and winner of Guitar Player magazine’s “Best Acoustic Guitarist” award guided the audience on a musical journey that included comic interludes and outstanding medleys.
Emmanuel strums with a superhuman dexterity and flair, generating other reviewers to comment that it’s “hard to tell where the man ends and the guitar begins.” The range of different sounds emitting from the stage forced me to remind myself that Emmanuel was armed with only a guitar. Indeed, Emmanuel himself joked after the show, “I’d like to thank my band.” He plays the guitar like a bassist and a drummer, and mixes bluesy sounds with rock and a sprinkling of fairy music.
Apart from being a guitarist with talent that more than rivals the likes of Neil Young and Chet Atkins, Emmanuel is also a fantastic performer. With natural charisma, his stage presence is enough to keep the audience entertained without resorting to cheap shtick like, say, burning a guitar - al la Jimi. With a passion and intensity that infects his listeners, Emmanuel moves his whole body during his performances. He also regularly punctuates the show with anecdotes and jokes – albeit, some of the latter were lost on the Israeli audience.
Before playing “Angelina,” Emmanuel quipped, “There are 6 or 7 thousand versions of this song on YouTube and only one by me. The composer.” His audience now warmed up to the idea that this was an evening of stand-up comedy as well as stand up strumming, Emmanuel launched into a series of genre-related jokes. (“What do you call a bass player whose girlfriend has left him? Homeless.”) Some of his riffs were almost as amusing as his jokes but it wasn’t all fun and games. Emmanuel seems to instinctively know where to pepper it with playfulness and where to pepper it with pathos.
His rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (at the request of an member of the audience) was nothing short of mesmerizing and gave the feeling of having been transported into a world of fairies and goblins.
Emmanuel showcased a couple of recent compositions, including a particularly stirring number called “Blood Brothers” which he wrote 2 months ago. An epic tune that sweeps a number of genres and boasts Emmanuel’s musical range, “Blood Brothers” fuses classic rock with flamenco overtones.
Emmanuel explained that as a child, he wasn’t aware of the existence of the bass guitar and as a result, he taught himself to play bass on an acoustic. Following a 15-minute medley of some Beatles classics which almost had the audience on its feet, Emmanuel explained how one can get as good as him (“lots and lots of practice”) and even gave the audience a mini-lesson. He played a slowed-down version of “Lady Madonna,” breaking it down bar by bar and giving explanations for how to use the guitar to play both the voice and the melody at the same time.
He was quick to add that when it comes to performing the song in front of an audience, he no longer thinks, he only feels. “I had to have the skills down first before getting to that stage,” he said.