Review: Tommy Emmanuel’s Big Island Debut Concert


Shortly after his second song, guitar master Tommy Emmanuel introduced his “band.” With just a single acoustic guitar, Emmanuel proceeded to play bass, rhythm, percussion, and lead parts while joking with the sold-out crowd. “That’s my bass player,” said Emmanuel, smiling while looking over his right shoulder to an empty stage. “He always likes to fly business-class.” It was a preview of an evening filled with captivating storytelling and dazzling guitar work.

To some it might be hard to imagine how a musician with no local airplay, and no previous concert history here on the island could fill a 500-seat theatre, let alone on a Sunday night, and just a few days after a Cat 4 hurricane pummeled us with record-breaking rainfall. I guess it’s a testament to the dedicated music fans we have here who will drive great distances on dark curvy roads, littered with landslides, to hear a world-class talent like Tommy Emmanuel.

Emmanuel is best known for his complex fingerstyle technique, energetic performances, and he doesn’t disappoint. The award-winning Australian guitarist also uses percussive effects on his instrument as evidenced by the scratch marks in the upper left-hand corner. It’s hard to believe, but the 58-year-old musician openly admits that he has never had formal training, doesn’t read music, yet he effortlessly plays bluegrass, blues, and jazz in his packed repertoire.

On tonight’s two-hour solo show, Emmanuel brought with him two custom Manton EBG808 TE models and one TE1. All are Tommy Emmanuel artist signature models. In a recent interview I had with Emmanuel, he explained how he tweaks the neck and tunes the guitar, (read the interview here.) From my vantage point, I only saw one effect pedal, and Emmanuel would occasionally call out to his sound engineer Craig to “sweeten the reverb.” If you closed your eyes, you’d swear at times he had a harp on stage along with various other string instruments. The only distraction was a chorus of coquis that filtered in during the quiet moments.

Throughout his set, Emmanuel played several tracks from his latest release, Accomplice One (CGP Sounds/Thirty Tigers). The multi-artist 16 track album features many guest appearances and Emmanuel picked three for the audience – “You Don’t Wanna Get You One of Those,” “Rachel’s Lullaby,” and “The Duke’s Message.” On the record, you can hear these as duets with Mark Knopfler, Jake Shimbakuro, and Suzy Bogguss, respectively.

One of the show’s mesmerizing moments was Emmanuel’s tribute to The Beatles. Emmanuel explained to the concertgoers that it’s the only music he plays for his three-year-old daughter Rachel. Prior to the ten-minute medley, Emmanuel performed a heartfelt and unique rendition of McCartney’s “Michelle.” At times his guitar sounded harp-like – similar to the koto, a Japanese 13-string instrument.  The Beatle’s medley segued into a jet-fueled rendition of Mason Williams’ 1968 hit “Classical Gas,” with Emmanuel beating on the base of his guitar like an out-of-control beatnik bongo player on far too many espressos. Adding to the fretboard frenzy were flashing strobe lights that ended right on cue. What a gas, man.

Emmanuel announced that he was an ambassador for Guitars For Vets, an American organization that helps soldiers afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by providing guitars and a forum to learn how to play. “I’ve donated most of my guitars to them,” explained Emmanuel. “I raise money by buying guitars and strings in bulk and donating them to the over two-thousand volunteer guitar teachers across America who give a guitar and a lesson every week for free to men and women who’ve served their country.” Emmanuel then launched into “Blood Brother,” an emotional instrumental he wrote for this cause.

Without a doubt, the greatest influence on Emmanuel’s guitar style and career was Chet Atkins, the iconic country music instrumentalist. Emmanuel revealed to the audience that he had an epiphany when he was seven while listening to Atkins on the car radio. “I could hear that he was playing everything at once. I told my father, ‘Whatever that is, that’s what I have to do!’” Emmanuel eventually connected with Atkins and the two collaborated on The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World, Atkin’s final recording.

Before wrapping up his show, Emmanuel said he wouldn’t have made it this far in his career if he hadn’t spent time listening to guitar players like Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, Eric Clapton, and countless others. He then passed on some words of wisdom to the young musicians in the crowd. “If you want to have good ideas, take good ideas in,” said Emmanuel. “You can’t write something from nothing. You have to have the ammunition inside you. How on earth do you think Lennon and McCartney wrote all those songs? A musician’s first job is to listen.”

Although this was Tommy Emmanuel’s first Big Island appearance, we certainly hope it won’t be his last. A hui hou – Till we meet again!

Set List
Blue Moon | Deep River Blues | Roll on Buddy | Fuel | Rachel’s Lullaby | Michelle |Beatles Medley: While My Guitar Gently Weeps/ She’s a Woman/Day Tripper/ Lady Madonna| Classical Gas | The Duke’s Message | Blood Brother | Angelina | guitar lesson | The Mistery | Windy and Warm | I Still Can’t Say Goodbye | The Tall Fiddler| Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Lewis & Clark | And So It Goes

All photos by Steve Roby.

Want more Tommy Emmanuel? Check out our 2015 interview with the guitar virtuoso.

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