The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world

The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world




12 AUGUST 2012





First of all let me just preface this review by saying that I wouldn’t consider myself to be a aficionado of Tommy Emmanuel, I guess I am more of a casual and interested observer who is sadly less than familiar with all but his better known work. Having seen him one solitary time back in the early nineties I really didn’t know what to think. Sometimes as a reviewer that is part of the fun.




Tonight in Perth Tommy Emmanuel proved to me at least why he is so enduring a performer and why he’s not just an Australian music icon, but someone quite rightly revered all over the world. I think that the word might be - magical?






Frank Vignola and Vinnie Ranionlo



Frank Vignola and Vinnie Ranionlo are funny guys but not half as funny as they are talented. The fact that Tommy introduces them with warm stories about Frank playing the leads to Les Paul’s rhythm seems either designed to set them up or put them off, if only they were lesser players!



In an entertaining set the semi-serious pair seems to be having nothing but fun whilst displaying at the same time digital dexterity and a clarity of tone that few could surely replicate? A highlight for me is when they see me in the pit and pose for a photo just a minute into the show, the fact they stop the show to do so makes it all the funnier for the audience and all the more unnerving for me as the sole photographer – who to be quite frank was more interested in testing the light for when Tommy took the stage (but don’t tell them)! Still it was a memorable moment.



Vignola and Ranionlo; though you suspect that you would never get away with calling them anything but Frank and Vinnie; play a wonderful and entertaining set with snatches of comedy and we get to hear everything from Italian movie music (I’m sure it was something from the Godfather), to Hoagy Carmichael to Sinatra’s Stardust as well as snatch of Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and a wonderful expansion of  Gimbel and Fox’s Killing Me Softly’ (originally recorded by Lori Lieberman but perhaps best known as being by Roberta Flack).  



The guys win over the crowd tonight with both their virtuosity and also their humour – stopping the show again when late comers arrive and enquiring how far they came before informing them that had managed to get here on time and had come in from New York.



Smiling and waving throughout, with technique and tone incomparable they even manage to demonstrate balance and flexibility during a humorous take on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ that would put most speed metal guitarist to shame.








Tommy Emmanuel




Tonight Mr Emmanuel is in more of a jazz mood than a blues mood, though the opening numbers demonstrate more of an elemental approach, with big chords and heavy bottom end to the mix.   His take on the classic Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford is almost completely earthy and sounds wonderful and that really is all it takes to win me over completely.



One man and a guitar may mean that there is nowhere to hide but it’s rare that you see someone as comfortable on stage as Tommy, and though you can tell both he and the audience love the old jokes and it’s all part of the show you can’t help but be overwhelmed as a casual observer at the sheer unadulterated talent the man has I both his fingers and his stage presence. The fact that you can’t immediately place a song here or a phrase there if anything makes the performance all the more special. I don’t honestly think I’ve had my eyes opened this wide since seeing Robben Ford and Michael Landau last year.



There are also unexpected moments and great use of space: we move from a picking blues ‘Long way to heaven’ through great percussive skills where Tommy uses the guitar as a makeshift drum breathing further depth and beauty into the performance. There’s a great arrangement of old song ‘Secret love’ after which Tommy relates a story of his first trip to Perth with his brother in 1963 when they stayed in King’s Park and he first saw his first kangaroo paw. The song starts with only percussion then takes on a dreamlike quality as the music floats over the audience. At times he conjures a bell-like resonance from the strings.



Playing with no setlist suits Tommy to the ground, and to see him just play and see where it goes, interspersed with anecdotes and tales of old is obviously something the capacity crowd here is familiar with. When he starts to pick out the Beatles ‘Michelle’ and its cascading splendour envelopes the audience it’s almost magical. A joyful rendition of ‘Here comes the Sun’ appears to warm applause and juxtaposed with the rather classically led Michelle it’s perfect. ‘When I'm 64’ follows and leads into the great George Harrison tune ‘While my guitar gently weeps’ which has a livelier, rockier feel. You can get carried away by Emmanuel’s music, as ‘Day tripper’ creeps in with it's incessant riff and terrain before ‘Lady Madonna’ gets the full works, full of speed riffing and heavy percussive downstrokes to crescendo and end the Beatles session. Queue the applause…



Tommy has new guitars tonight, and lets us know that the old Matons have been sent back to the museum where he himself will eventually be stuffed and mounted.







As well as the old songs and standards there are also new songs: ‘The Duke’ looks at a familiar refrain that is almost evocative of Scotland with ‘Theme from the Deer Hunter’ overtones.



“Music brings the human race together” Tommy tells us and you don’t doubt it for a moment, you only hope that people are brave enough to broaden their musical tastes and embrace the diversity.



‘Angelina’ perhaps one of Tommy’s best-loved songs comes next along with a beautiful story about a Japanese fan that played it for him in Melbourne. And when he tells us that he feels truly blessed to be able to play all over the world and put out a positive message in all negativity you know he is sincere.



For me the next part of the show is a wonderful and unexpected highlight. Having no idea of Tommy’s involvement with ‘American Indian services’ in the US he tells us of a trip to the US to play in Salt lake played for the Navaho nation. He tells of being inspired by the costume and drums of the Navaho and how during show chief played flute so deeply and beautifully it touched him so much he was moved to see if could replicate it. Two hours in Denver at an airport stopover (spookily I’ve had that happen to me on a couple of occasions, though I never spent my time there as productively!) he had a finished song.



The story of struggle of US native people’s is called ‘The Trails’ and is for me at least the centrepiece of the entire evening. We start with percussion and almost piano-like notes, then resounding drum-like tapping of his guitar, interspersed with high notes like rolling thunder; before a strummed searching riff builds to bursts into a cascade of high notes replicating flute. The effect is so eerie that it transports you to a desert plain. It’s a powerful and stirring piece and subsides with the great moody percussion it started with.







Then as if we weren’t sufficiently impressed by Tommy’s creativity already he picks up a brush normally reserved for drummers to play his guitar and microphone as if it were a drum kit – it’s amazing to watch. He builds up an almost Cuban beat before concluding his lesson in how not to play a guitar! A water break allows him time to inform us that you have to be fit to be in swowbiz…



Next he picks up a Blackwood guitar which he describes in a cod Keith Richards accent as ‘a little bit filthy’ and explodes into a blues solo, building the sonic riff  and terrain before launching into a real riff rocket. It’s by far the loudest part of the night and some wonderful and powerful blues that demonstrates a great sense of space in the soloing. ‘Stevie’s Blues’ is all he needed to say by way of explanation.



We learn of when Tommy first got invited to play with Les Paul, and how he rang Chet Atkins who counselled him not to – saying ‘don't he'll just humiliate you’ before letting him know how Les used to play tricks on his ‘guests’. Undaunted he heads off to the Iridium Jazz Club where Les brings Tommy out play songs at the end of a set. Les then proceeds to attack Tommy in dressing room, warning him not to ever ‘hold back on stage again’, When the second set comes he’s introduced again and proceeds to ‘give it his all’ and the crowd goes crazy. Les’ response is to say ‘he waits til I'm old to beat me up!’ It’s a wonderful anecdote about a sadly missed legend and you can feel the real warmth and regard Tommy has for both Chet and Les; as Tommy says it’s like an artist being asked if he would like to ‘paint with Picasso’. Music does indeed take you to places you’ve never dreamt you’d see.



And with that Tommy’s set is over and Frank Vignola is back onstage with Tommy. The first tune of the extended encore is dedicated to Hank (Marvin) and (his wife) Carol who are both here tonight. There’s some wonderful picked soloing and snatches of The Beatles and the sound is suitably lush. In a night of rich and diverse sounds we are suddenly made aware that we are missing the ‘polka’ component and the polka ensues to an almost hillbilly picking intensity or to some (no names here) an almost Benny Hill cartoon chase music intensity. We move to swing as Vinnie comes back for a version of ‘Let's call the whole thing off’ then there’s more speed polka. And to completely change the pace we end with a beautiful ‘Wonderful world’ before we break briefly to finish with Sinatra and the whole auditorium claps along.



Tonight has been incomparable, come back soon Tommy.