Blazing fret boards
Amazing guitarist Tommy Emmanuel returns to Chico’s Big Room
I asked my friend Franz, who is a huge fan of Australian acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, to give me one sentence that sums up Emmanuel’s playing. His response: “My first reaction when I heard him was, ‘This is impossible!'” Franz said that Emmanuel’s playing is so incredibly good, and he is so relaxed while doing it, that it is simply astonishing. And Franz is not the only one who feels this way.
Emmanuel recently broke the record for selling out Sierra Nevada’s Big Room: His July 20 show sold out in only 14 minutes, so fast that a second show, on Monday, July 21, has been added.
When I talked to him by phone recently while he was in Orlando (playing Epcot Center), I asked Emmanuel if he knew he’d just broken the Sierra Nevada record for sold-out shows, and he said no, both happily and somewhat in stride.
His popularity is growing.
He told me about the 1400-seat venue in Wichita that he recently sold out in record time, and about the jam-packed show he played in Winfield, Kansas; the show was so packed that the audience had to spill over onto the stage and Emmanuel had to part the crowd just to get on stage. Additionally, folks at the mandolin championships being held a half-mile down the road were complaining that the mandolinists were being drowned out by the roar of Emmanuel’s enthusiastic crowd. Now that’s popular!
On Emmanuel’s Web site (www.tommyemmanuel.com), you’ll find him referred to as “Tommy Emmanuel, c.g.p.” The “c.g.p.” stands for “certified guitar player.” The C.G.P. Award was presented by the late Chet Atkins to Emmanuel in Nashville in 1999 “in recognition of his contributions to the art of fingerpicking.” The only other people to have received this award are Jerry Reed, John Knowles and Atkins.
Atkins was also Emmanuel’s mentor and friend for many years. In fact, Emmanuel first came to the United States just to meet Atkins, after he had written to Atkins shortly after his (Emmanuel’s) father died. One thing led to another, and soon Emmanuel and Atkins had developed a close musical and personal relationship, “as close as father and son,” Emmanuel told me.
On the musical front, he and Atkins won the 1998 Nashville Music Award for Best Instrumental Album for The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World and were nominated for a Grammy for ‘Smokey Mountain Lullaby,” from the same album. Atkins was and is, simply, Emmanuel’s hero. His touching memorial to Atkins on his Web site says, ‘Always in our hearts.”
To carry Atkins around in one’s heart means to carry the spirit of one of the greatest pickers ever. Besides the love he has for Atkins, Emmanuel carries on the brilliance of Atkins’ playing and style. But he goes beyond that, presenting a guitar performance that one fan described this way: “Tommy’s mastery of the guitar as a multi-faceted instrument … goes way beyond picking and strumming the strings. … [H]e mesmerizes you with incredibly controlled softness countered by thunderously flashy change-ups and light-fast fingerpicking … through the traditions of Chet Atkins, on to folk, jazz [and] fusion styles. … [He] offers … impossible manipulations of string sound, drumming rhythms, harmonics, and unusual voicings from every part of the instrument including the face, body, rims, neck, nuts and bridgework …” (Michael G. Braa, on www.bn.com). Emmanuel can also play a simply beautiful love song: See “Stay Close to Me,” for instance, on Only (Favored Nations, 2002).
Emmanuel, who now lives in Nashville, is looking forward to returning to Chico. “I love playing in Chico,” he said. “[Sierra Nevada] is a great venue and the people [in the audience] are so enthusiastic! It makes me wanna give ’em blood and bones!”