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Published: 2008/09/28
by Mark Burnell

Tommy Emmanuel: Center Stage

Favored Nations

If any of the legion of Keller Williams fans out there ever wondered what he’d be like aged 20 more years and stripped of his box of tricks, then a viewing of this DVD might answer that question. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name, Tommy Emmanuel is an Australian guitarist for whom the word virtuoso may have been invented. His style of playing, taking rhythm and lead simultaneously and using the body of his instrument to percussive effect, is not dissimilar to that of Mr. Williams, but Emmanuel plays it fairly “straight” with no loops or fancy pedals, just a unique pickup inside the body of his acoustic guitars that helps to amplify every delicate note to huge levels, producing a tone that’s remarkably distinctive. This is not your mother’s acoustic guitar picking, that’s for sure.

There’s no questioning Emmanuel’s talent, but, not unlike Keller, a little goes a long way. That being said, the ecstatic audience at this show, recorded at the High Sierra Brewing Company in Chico, California, would obviously disagree with me. Emmanuel has two basic songs styles, regardless of whether or not the songs are covers or originals: one is fast and one is slow. The fast tunes are usually very fast, indeed, and feature both an impossible number of notes tumbling into one another and Emmanuel grinning like a loon, and are for at least the first half dozen rather thrilling. The slower numbers feature vibrato notes held for an impossibly long time and are invariably accompanied by Emmanuel looking serious with a furrowed brow. Unfortunately, these slower numbers have a tendency to glide prettily into “acoustic Yanni” territory.

This DVD lasts almost two hours, and at least half of it is pretty damned good. Highlights are the opening “Finger Lakes,” a slower song that really works while featuring sounds that I don’t think I’ve ever heard coming from an acoustic guitar before, an insanely fast take on “Nine Pound Hammer” that reduces Emmanuel’s fingers to a blur, and “Mombasa,” where Emmanuel turns his guitar into a percussion instrument. A guest appearance by harmonica player Bob Littell is less successful, essentially comprising four slow cover tunes in a row. Keller fans should find much to love here, as should any folks who like their guitar acoustic.

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