|Tommy Emmanuel, with Richard Smith
at Sunoco Performance Theater at the Whitaker Center,
Harrisburg, Pa. (12 March 2015)
Was this a concert? Or was it an advanced class in blues and fingerstyle guitar, conducted by two masters of the craft? Maybe it was both, and we in the audience were lucky enough to get a two-for-one deal at an almost-bargain price.
First, a few words about the theater, which is situated within a downtown science center. This intimate venue seats fewer than 700. According to an usher who was eager to be asked, the room -- complete with two balconies and with thick comfortable seats -- is designed to be a jewel-box theater. "Everywhere you look," she said, "there should be a treat for your eyes." The walls are made of slate and steel, in tribute to Pennsylvania's geological and industrial heritage. Additional motifs in the decor symbolize the nearby Susquehanna River and mountain laurel, the state flower. These touches are significant when the place is located in the capital city.
Opening act, London-born musician Richard Smith, was a surprise to us for several reasons. First of all, his name wasn't listed on the bill or the tickets. Secondly, he's an accomplished guitarist in his own right, and it didn't take more than a few minutes to prove this fact to us. His nine-song set included the Chet Atkins tunes "Windy & Warm" and "The Watkins Man," Jerry Reed's "East Wind" and Merle Travis's "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed." He launched into a bit of six-string comedy with "Would You Like to Play the Guitar?" -- a Pat Donohue spoof of Bing Crosby's "Swinging on a Star" -- and "The Tennessee Waltz," done in the style of an old and worn 78-rpm record. He slowed down the pace with his moving instrumental versions of the standards "Tenderly" and "Cheek to Cheek." He also offered an original tune, "Happy Blues." It had such an infectious beat that we all must have looked like bobble-head dolls from his perch on stage.
Smith easily overcame the initial reaction of some when he first appeared instead of the expected headliner. "That's not him," more than one person whispered to his seat-mate. Maybe not, but he was amazing enough. When's the last time you saw an unbilled opener get a full standing ovation? Richard Smith deserved it, and much more.
I first learned of Australian guitar great Tommy Emmanuel from a random link that someone posted on Facebook in 2014. It clicked to his version of "Classical Gas". WOW! I couldn't get enough of this video. I had to keep clicking to find out more about this guy. I also watched his Ted talk, "My Life as a One-Man Band." When I realized he was Australian, I despaired of any chance of ever hearing him play the guitar in person. But on occasion I checked his tour schedule, and I was rewarded with my diligence when I spied this date at a theater just an hour from my doorstep. Since he averages a whopping 300 shows a year, the odds were in my favor that our trajectories would narrow someday.
Tommy Emmanuel strode out smiling, to our cheers and applause, as he carried a beaten Maten guitar to the center of the stage. (It's the one he played most often this night, even though three others stood behind him, at the ready. And it's no wonder his primary six-string shows wear: he also uses it as "a percussive instrument" during songs.) He launched right into his version of "Blue Moon," and set out to amaze us for the next several hours with his intricate fingerstyle technique. Other standards he offered were "Secret Love," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Bye Bye Blackbird." He shared a number of original melodies, too: "Traveling Clothes," "Mombasa," "Ruby's Eyes," "Blood Brother," "Angelina" (written for his daughter) and "Mr. Guitar" (a tribute to Chet Atkins).
Atkins was one of Tommy's major influences. He was only 6 or 7 years old when he heard a Chet Atkins tune on the radio and realized that the man was playing all of the parts at once: bass, rhythm and melody. He vowed to learn how to do this himself. Now, 50 years later, he's one of the masters of fingerstyle. He paid homage to some of the guitar greats of the past by including some of their songs tonight. Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues" led right into Merle Travis's "Cannonball Rag." Later came another Travis song, "Nine Pound Hammer." We enjoyed the Hank Williams song, "I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow," and Chet Atkins' moving memoir, "I Still Can't Say Goodbye." Tommy also performed the Arthur Smith classic, "Guitar Boogie." He wowed every strummer in the audience. And he chatted to us about music and performing, too.
He wrapped up the main set with a Beatles medley, made up of "Here Comes the Sun," "When I'm 64," "She's a Woman," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Day Tripper" and "Lady Madonna." Then he segued into an abridged edition of "Classical Gas." YES! I threw down my notebook and gave him my full attention as I regaled in the familiar sight and sound. His performance was much better in person than it could ever be on online video. I couldn't believe I was finally witnessing it myself. Another ovation was in order.
Richard Smith returned to play a series of guitar duets with Tommy. They started with "Sweet Georgia Brown." Then they gave a nod to both Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed with "Nashtownville," "Jerry's Breakdown" and "Serenade for Summer." Both Richard and Tommy had chances to perform with Atkins before he passed away in 2001, and they continue his legacy, magnificently. And the audience gave them much appreciation in return.
Tommy came back for a two-song encore. He played and sang "Hurt," best known by its performances by Nine Inch Nails and by Johnny Cash. He concluded the show with another original song written for his 3-month-old daughter, "It's Never Too Late." Thus ended a tremendous three-hour performance. It was easily the best three hours I've spent in a long time.
Whenever you see someone who is in his element and who is clearly doing what he is meant to do in life, you can feel the power and the "rightness" of the experience. It is a joy to behold. Both Richard Smith and Tommy Emmanuel exude this quality. And they're having a darn lot of fun doing it. They inspire us campfire guitarists, one way or the other. After spending three hours watching them, you want to go home and either practice, practice, practice; or you want to dig a big hole in your backyard and throw your six-string down into it. Most of us will never play the way they do. And that's OK. They do it well enough for us all. And they give us something special to watch and to listen to.
As for the "jewel box theater," I'm sure I'll find a reason to return. It's a wonderful place to see talented musicians.
by Corinne H. Smith