It’s been nearly 30 years – since the last time I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan – since I’ve had to pick my jaw up off the floor after seeing a guitarist perform.
But then, Tommy Emmanuel came to town.
On the road with David Grisman to promote their just-released and terrific Pickin’ LP with the CGP and Dawg tour, Emmanuel walked onto the darkened stage of Columbus’ beautiful Speaker Jo Ann Davidson Theater without a word Nov. 10 and launched into a six-string clinic. After a couple of instrumental numbers, he paused and explained what was happening.
“I’m opening for me,” he said.
Good thing, too. Because the only person who could have a reasonable shot at successfully following Tommy Emmanuel is … Tommy Emmanuel.
Standing on the sparsely appointed stage – a guitar tree with three instruments, a mic and a place to sit was all he required – Emmanuel aped John Wayne in his Aussie accent between virtuosic performances that found him showing off his super-human abilities as he played melodies with his left hand while coaxing percussive rhythms from the body of his guitar with his right. Emmanuel moved and removed his capo mid-song; he played so quickly, his hands were just blurs; he sounded like as many as four players as he worked; and he benefitted from the Davidson’s perfect sound, each note, tap, pluck, strum, bash, knock and chord change ringing crystal-clear in the 900-seat house as he played “It’s Never too Late” and covered Chet Atkins, the man who dubbed Emmanuel Certified Guitar Player.
Just as Emmanuel benefitted from Atkins’ largess early in his career, he returned the favor by ceding the stage – and his axe – to 16-year-old Kentuckian Parker Hastings, who wowed the audience with his own instrumental “Along the Way” and a cover of CGP Jerry Reed’s “Papa’s Knee.”
“My guitar never sounded so good,” Emmanuel said after hugging Hastings and returning to finish the 50-minute opening stanza.
On the eve of Veterans Day, Emmanuel encouraged concertgoers to support Guitars for Vets, which supplies those who served with instruments and lessons. In honor of them, the guitarist performed “Blood Brothers,” a complex instrumental that contained a hint of “Midnight Rider” and found Emmanuel thrashing his strings to create a cacophony of sound that mimicked experiences only a few of us have had to endure.
After a break that allowed Emmanuel to change into a western-style, button-down shirt, the guitarist returned with his mandolinist partner Grisman to run through instrumental numbers from Pickin’ and other selections from the players’ careers. Unplugged now and simply miced, Dawg worked on a 94-year-old mandolin while CGP played – and continually gushed over – his buddy’s 1934 Martin guitar.
When he wasn’t soloing in his peerless fashion, Grisman, his face framed by a shock of white hair and a bushy white beard, played clipped, bluegrass-flavored chords and held down the sound for Emmanuel to play over.
Playing with a partner meant Emmanuel had to dial it back a bit, but the 70-minute performance was no less stupefying than what had come before.
Numbers such as “CGP & Dawg,” “Farm & Fun Time” and “Port Townsend Blues” were extended beyond album-length, as the players traded licks and Emmanuel occasionally shouted with unadulterated joy. When they bit into “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Emmanuel and Grisman batted around the theme and built the song from slow, staggered picking to staggeringly fast licks that ended as quickly as they started, resulting in a split second of silence before the audience erupted.
The guitarist previewed his forthcoming duets LP, Accomplice One, by performing “Watson Blues,” which features Grisman in studio, and he sang Mark Knofpler’s “You Don’t Want to Get You One of Those” as a warning against buying jalopies.
Between songs, the recording artists joked about trying to make a living in the nearly out-of-business record business, with Emmanuel, a decade Grisman’s junior, pointing out Dawg was “born in ‘45 and in ‘78 he was 33.”
Grisman took lead vocals on “Shady Grove,” and old-timey number he used to play with Jerry Garcia, and the two showed off their penchant for the absurd by covering Ray Stevens’ “I’m My Own Grandpa,” singing the ribald number into a shared single mic and laughing all the while as Grisman stumbled over a couple of verses.
As the audience stood to reward Emmanuel and Grisman for their immaculate performance, it was clear the concert had everything one could want: flawless performances; nods to the masters; previews of the future; players who obviously enjoy playing; and an attentive audience that collectively knew it had just witnessed something special.
The house lights rose and I looked to the floor, found my jaw and reaffixed it to my face.
And it was good.