It’s easy to see when somebody loves what they’re doing. It’s plain as day to spot and nearly impossible to imitate. They could repeat it every day and night for years and still their eyes will light up and they’ll look like a kid who just surprised themselves, learning how to do some exciting new thing.
Five decades into an illustrious career, Tommy Emmanuel still loves playing the guitar. That was clear for his audience on the opening night of his two-day performance with Martin Taylor at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall on Feb. 20, because he’s damn good at it.
The duo draws a motley crowd — a near-even mix of Van Halen-era tour tees and double-starched collars. Of snarled manes and wispy greys. When Emmanuel picked up the guitar, the reason behind the dichotomy became clear.
The man can shred the cheese. He’ll out-solo the best of ‘em, and then just keep going until he feels like doing something else, giving the audience his self-assured wink-and-nod service the entire time. Still, there’s a sophistication to his playing. Ten fingers conduct their six-stringed orchestra, coaxing an eclectic array of textures and moods and percussions out of one instrument. It looks like a parlor trick, and he’s very aware of that, making extraneous, often humorous moves with his hands as bedroom rock-stars young and old study the master’s every move, hoping to witness his secret.
The secret is, there is no secret. It’s apparent from the ear-to-ear grin and the way he struts about the stage that he’s simply a big kid playing with his toys — he's just been playing with them a whole lot for a quite a long time.
The show is nearly all guitar-driven, though Emmanuel does chime in with his Australian take on a honky-tonk drawl for a few verses of “Deep River Blues.” When he does sing, it takes a backseat to his playing and when he doesn’t, you don’t really miss it — and that’s not a knock against his voice. Like classical music, the songs are so layered and his playing so emotive that lyrics would only detract from the story the instrumentals can vividly tell on their own.
The guy’s a showboat. Halfway into his cover of “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, Emmanuel dramatically flung his capo over his shoulder and across the stage (he had to go find it later) and launched into a near two minute drum solo, creating an entire range of percussion from slapping his hand and ring against the body of the guitar and the microphone, successfully imitating a full drum kit. He’d often create a thunderous, movie-score like “wumpf” with the heel of his palm that reverberated through the hall and rattled in the chests of listeners. The audience ate it up.
After a quick intermission, Taylor joined Emmanuel for the second leg of the performance.
Now, both Emmanuel and Taylor have a similar musical upbringing. Both started playing guitar at the age of four — Emmanuel learned from his mother, Taylor from his father. Neither had any formal education on the instrument, learning only by ear and from example. Both have led stellar careers.
Standing side by side on stage, they almost couldn’t be any more different. Cartoons don’t paint characters this opposite.
Emmanuel stomps his feet against the stage to the rhythm and works the crowd every chance he gets. Taylor stands in place and focuses more on his playing; he’s a little stiff, to be honest, but Emmanuel’s antics coax a smile out of him every now and again. Emmanuel wears an attention-grabbing, psychedelic dress shirt — one of his three wardrobe changes for the evening. Taylor sticks with a black suit. Emmanuel is lanky to Taylor’s stout. When Taylor curtsies and bows, Emmanuel holds his guitar in the air like he’s conducting a rock ballad battle charge.
Their respective instruments also reflect these differences. Emmanuel’s guitar sports scabs and nicks all over where the finish is worn bare from his scraping and whacking his pick against it to create percussion. Taylor’s jazz guitar is polished and immaculate, and he keeps the pick-guard on to protect the finish should his picking hand miss its mark — it serves no purpose for him; everything about his technique is pinpoint precise.
It’s this yin yang between the two that makes their duo performance so sonically, and visually, interesting. Emmanuel bangs out the power chords in his carefree fashion while Taylor surgically drills away at his fret board. The two virtuosos complement their differences in playing style and everything is stronger as a result.
The only slight downside of the show was the security staff who kept shining their flashlights into the audience with Gestapo intensity, trying to catch people taking a quick phone shot. Yes, it would be great if people could be a little more considerate and disconnect from their phone for a few hours — perhaps live in a moment or two — but the fuss made over trying to control grown adults created more of a distraction than just letting them capture their shot and a handful of half-hearted digital accolades.
If you’re a guitarist looking for a secret from the master big-daddy, that holy-grail nugget of information that will shoot your playing into stardom, look no further than the good time Emmanuel has on stage. But you need not be a guitar enthusiast for his infectious attitude to rub off. He exudes skill and passion in spades and it shines through in a performance well worth seeing.