Updated: Jan 17
For someone like myself who sees so much live music...I've not seen anything on the planet like Tommy Emmanuel...EVER!
Some of my musician friends over the past few years, have told me about Tommy Emmanuel but this was my first opportunity to see him perform live, and I am so incredibly glad I did.
Tommy Emmanuel is a handsome smiling, gray haired, 63 year old man, born in Muswellbrook, New South Wales, Australia in May 1955. He was one of six children. When Tommy was four, his father bought him a guitar and his mum taught him how to play. By the age of six little Tommy was a working musician! When Tommy was 7, he heard on the radio what was to be his inspiration, Chet Atkins. When he heard Atkins, he knew, that was it for him.
By the late 1970s, he was playing drums with his brother Phil in the group Goldrush as well doing session work on numerous albums and jingles. He gained further prominence in the late 70s as the lead guitarist in The Southern Star Band, it was the backing group for Doug Parkinson. During the early 80s, he joined the rock group Dragon, touring with them, including a 1987 tour with Tina Turner. He then left the group to embark on a solo career. With more than 30 albums under his belt and many years of touring the world stages, Tommy Emmanuel is what I would call a guitarists guitarist! Phil, Tommys older brother also went on to play guitar for a living. It was said that, Tommy plays it sweet, while Phil plays it street.
Tommy is a story teller and he tells a story of the time when he and his older brother Phil bugged their father for electric guitars as kids. His father finally gave in and bought them the electric guitars they wanted. When they received their guitars, they asked their dad wheres the amp? His father had no idea that needed an amp too. And the money was gone with the purchase of the guitars. So they had to make do with what they had without an amp. He and Phil soon discovered that when they play these electric guitars they can hit the headstock against their Mums walnut cabinet and the guitars reverberate and actually make a cool sound. One day his father saw the hole that they were making on the side of their mums cabinet and went out straight away to get that amp!
Another one of his wonderful stories about when he started playing...he thought that the bass sound was also played on the guitar. So naturally he played both the sounds of a bass and guitar on one guitar. Then one day at around the age of ten, he saw a four stringed instrument. Asked what it was and found out that a bass is actually another instrument altogether! Until that moment, he had no idea that there was actually another instrument, that had only four strings, called a bass!
The day before this performance on January 12th, at the GAMH, I got the privilege of meeting him in Sonoma County at a local radio station, KRCB in Santa Rosa, where he was doing an on air segment to promote his Northern California shows. He and JD Simo played 3 songs, and had a chat with Doug Jayne, the DJ. During Tommys performance, the sounds that come from one ordinary acoustic guitar, sounded to me like multiple guitars, a bass and a drum kit all emanating from that one acoustic guitar. Its quite extraordinary to see and hear. His fingering/picking style is superb, like nothing I've seen before and may never see again. After the radio segment we had a quick chat before going to the next station and he insisted taking a selfie with me. One of the questions I asked him was, if he didn't become a guitarist, what would he have done? He said he would've been a drummer! And what an excellent drummer he is!
At the radio station and at the Great American Music Hall he had the very talented 33 year old, Chicago born JD Simo support and accompany him on 12 tour dates. I had met JD a month before at The Warfield when he and his band 'SIMO', opened for Big Head Todd and the Monsters. On that night at the Warfield I noticed JDs awesome musical talents and searched him out after he played. Whilst the headliner was on stage, JD and I had a chat in the lobby of the venue. JD seems to channel Hendrix, and at times Joe Cocker. Whomever JD is channelling, his guitar playing is excellent, hence the reason that Tommy chose JD to tour with him.
Show time...In San Francisco, that Friday night upon entering the GAMH, Emmanuels publicist, Jes was at the entrance seeing me into the venue. He escorted me downstairs for the meet and greet. There were only about a half dozen of us. I hung with JD and his friend Brian whilst Tommy was greeting his select fans. When they all went, Tommy and I went into his dressing room, sat down and had a wee chat. He was very comfortable to let me photograph him whilst we talked. He was kind, and welcoming, and I couldn't have hoped for a more charming man. I would've been happy to hang with him for hours. Though he had a show to do and I needed to go back into the main floor of the venue and get my gear ready to shoot. After wishing him and JD well I made my way upstairs to meet my companion before JD came onto the stage.
JD played for 40 minutes. Excellent guitar playing, strong set and left a real impression on the guitar loving audience. A few minutes between artists, Tommy then came onto the stage and wowed the crowd in a way I've not seen before. I believe after every song he got a standing ovation. And every one was very well deserved! Tommy played drums, bass and guitar, all on his normal looking acoustic Australian Maton guitars. At one point he played a ten minute long Beatles medley, starting off with 'Michelle' going into at least a dozen more recognizable Fab Four tunes. Mind blowing! That night, he played no more than six 'songs' solo. Though about 90 minutes in length. Including 'Over the Rainbow'. Ending the evening with, Amazing Grace. JD came on during Tommys set and they rocked a few songs together. Tommys performance did not only include music, it was full of stories, and interesting dialogue. Tommy has a warm and inviting personality. Obvious to all that he loves every minute of what he does. At one point he tells the audience that he plays for happiness. He plays, and the audience gets happy...and happy we were!
For me, these two days in the beginning of this year will always be remembered. It's the day when I saw and heard the guitar in a very different manner than ever before. Thank you Tommy Emmanuel and JD Simo for this musical experience! I highly suggest that if Tommy Emmanuel ever comes to your town or to a place even remotely near you...run, don't walk to the venue and see this guitar legend!