Considering his status as one of the preeminent masters of the acoustic guitar, not only does Tommy Emmanuel qualify as a genuine "guitar hero", but his performance as part of Berklee's Guitar Sessions series was so extraordinary, there were times when I found myself uttering that famous catchphrase from Wayne's World. Tossing off adjectives like virtuosic and accomplished come off as inadequate when you actually get to see Emmanuel live: he delights in wowing the crowd with his renown dexterity and complex playing style - somehow managing to provide several layers of performance (melody, improvisation, harmonic charts) simultaneously on one instrument alone, only occasionally delving into his bag of sonic effects to underscore a particularly sweet passage or haunting refrain.
Earlier in the day, Emmanuel was giving a "master class" in guitar technique in the very same auditorium at the Berklee Performance Center, demonstrating to a rapt audience how he achieves various strategies for augmenting everything from orchestral rendering to classic rock solos - the demonstration itself was a concert for all intents and purposes, so it was astonishing that just a few short hours later, he was taking the stage, attired in a dress casual black suit and crisp white shirt, this time wowing a crowd of fans and patrons, instead of eager college kids.
Not one to work from a setlist, the always-on-his-game Emmanuel gave us an eclectic program, containing both original material and his now-famous cover versions of classic tunes, among which was an inspired Beatles medley, where Emmanuel breezed through the many chord, melody and signature changes on "Here Comes The Sun", "Lady Madonna", "When I'm Sixty-Four", "Day Tripper" and "Something." Highlights of his original tunes included fan favorites "Angelina" and "Lewis and Clark"; a premiere of a new piece, entitled "Blood Brothers" which seemed to encompass the entire history of Americana roots music, and was a fitting tribute to Tommy's friend and mentor, the late Chet Atkins. He also performed his striking and heartfelt homage to the history and plight of Native Americans with the stirring "The Trail" - with guitar alone, he created the soundtrack for a Ken Burns masterpiece: it was by turns stark, dramatic, passionate, melancholy, and triumphant. It is not an easy task to convey that gamut of emotions so effectively within the context of a single composition, but Emmanuel did, and the integrity of sentiment displayed was nothing short of majestic.
And while tunes like "Close To You" (from the acoustic Bacharach tribute CD, This Guitar's In Love With You) and Sting's "Fields Of Gold" were not represented, he did treat us to a wicked, breakneck interpretation of Mason Williams' chestnut, "Classical Gas" that had the crowd on its feet (frankly, I am shocked to learn this man has not been bestowed a Grammy for his work thus far). Midway through his nearly two-hour concert, Tommy motioned to a woman offstage, and whispered something in her ear - it was an unusual break in the proceedings, and I had this strange sense that something was amiss. I felt honored by his transparency when Emmanuel explained that he has missed his blood pressure medication, and needed some aspirin to bring it down to a safe level. But even after saying that, instead of taking a brief respite to engage the audience in some lighthearted banter, he picked up his guitar and launched into another display of virtuosic showmanship that left me awe-struck and anxious at the same time. Later, he brushed it off by saying, "Thank Goodness for Bayer Aspirin", which helped set my mind at ease.
Toward the end of the night, he invited two young musicians on stage to perform with him - one on guitar, and another on fiddle (which he introduced by saying "I say violin instead of fiddle, because this is Berklee!") The trio took us on a nostalgic trip back to the Le Jazz Hot days of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, with Emmanuel trading licks and playing off the chemistry of the fiddle/guitar combo - the kids were understandably dumbstruck at the idea that they were, in fact, sharing the stage with such a legend, but Emmanuel did his part to make them both feel at ease, and after a somewhat tenuous start, things began to gel. Their set together was lively, animated, even simpatico at places. Watching the three of them take a collective bow at the end was one of the finest examples of fellowship among musicians, and if it seemed a generation gap existed before they started playing, it was obliterated at that very moment.
Thunderous applause and enthusiastic shouts of "One More Song!" found Emmanuel returning to the stage for an encore: some were shouting out for him to perform the crowd-pleaser "Guitar Boogie", but rather than resort to another astonishing display of technical proficiency, Emmanuel adopted instead to perform "What A Wonderful World" - made most famous by the legendary Louis Armstrong. I thought it was a superlative choice: Emmanuel gave an affecting, lyrical, stirring performance that was so understated in its beauty, it was all this writer could do to wipe away the tears. During my interview with him a week earlier, Emmanuel revealed to me that his calling was not only to entertain, but through his music, leave the world a much better place. There was never any doubt in my mind: not only did Emmanuel accomplish this with aplomb, but with style and grace to spare. I'm not sure I'm worthy of such incredible talent from such a humble and unassuming genius, but I was grateful to have shared in it. Rating: A+