in performance: tommy emmanuel

tommy emmanuel.

Tommy Emmanuel took great pride last night at the Lexington Opera House in explaining his family heritage.

“I come from a long line of mechanics,” he beamed.

That might not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the kind of industrial strength potency the Aussie native displayed on solo acoustic guitar. For the better part of two primarily instrumental hours, Emmanuel unleashed dizzying but highly proficient melodic runs, stern percussive rolls, blinding speed and an agility in shifting from style to style as readily as one might shift the gears on a bike.

Take the way, for instance, “Blood Brothers,” eased out of its dark, Southern intro into a Spanish flavored melody while slaps on the strings cut through the tune like cracks of thunder. Consider the way a homeland staple like “Waltzing Matilda” was thoroughly Americanized with a generous dose of country whimsy inherited by mentor Chet Atkins. Then there was Emmanuel’s cover of the Mason Williams hit “Classical Gas,” which was hotwired into the aural equivalent of a car chase. It became less an exercise in emotively melodic drama and more of a warp speed dash.

The pace and intensity was purposeful, the guitarist said, stating his upbringing in Aussie pubs taught him to play “loud, fast and hard.” After the first 20 minutes or so, when the full scope and drive of Emmanuel’s astonishing technique was unleashed, it was hard not to wish for at least some kind of reprieve, a tune or two that would allow audience members to at least loosen their seat belts for a moment.

Such a breather was presented in a newly composed original for the guitarist’s daughter, “Rachel’s Lullaby,” and the “Bridge of Spies”- inspired “Eva Waits,” the only new tune from the recent “Live! At the Ryman” album. Both works turned the performance inward to a lighter, more lyrical sensibility. Emmanuel’s technical prowess was just as commanding as the music performed at a breakneck pace, but its emotional impact was understandably more reserved and graceful.

Cap all that off with tunes that had Emmanuel juggling lead and rhythm lines simultaneously (as on “Day Tripper,” which was tucked inside a briskly executed Beatles medley) and a joyous performance attitude that insured no one was having more fun last night than Emmanuel himself and you had an expert evening of cross-continental guitar play.


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