CD Review of Center Stage by Tommy Emmanuel
Recommended if you like
John Fahey, Strunz & Farah,
Al DiMeola
Favored Nations Acoustic
Tommy Emmanuel:
Center Stage

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD


This is acoustic music in your face!" the emcee says by way of introducing the live recording that follows on this double-disc set from Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, the 53-year-old virtuoso who clearly knows how to wring every last bit of dynamic energy and volume out of his battered six-string. While old-time traditionalists will be green with envy at the effortless ease with which he blows through songs like Merle Travis' "Nine Pound Hammer" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind," they will scoff at the crazy percussive sound effects he wrangles out of the strings and body in a rousing rave-up of "House of the Rising Sun" with harmonica player and stage guest Bob Littell. And when they hit the point in the CD where Emmanuel creates underwater-sounding feedback weirdness on "Initiation," they'll probably throw a conniption, because people just aren't supposed to make whale songs with just an acoustic guitar and a few effects circuits – noises that come darn near blowing one's speakers if the volume has been jacked up so as not to miss Emmanuel's subtle fingerpicking glories earlier in the set.

At the same time, postmodern, worldly music fans will love the African-styled "Mombasa," which is a 180-degree turn from the Scots-Irish Appalachian tradition from which his fingerpicking style originated, as well as the mellow, melodic "Morning Aire," played so authoritatively that you hardly notice Emmanuel's gone all Windham Hill on us. Yet this younger crowd probably will be bored by his nods to traditional old-timey music in "Tall Fiddler" and Cowboy's Dream," which are countrified showcases for his unbelievable ability. He records, by the way, for Favored Nations, Steve Vai's private label. Whatever you have to say about Steve Vai (the Vai discussion should start with his satanic, cinematic “Crossroads” guitar solo and end with David Lee Roth's "Yankee Rose," two of the lowest musical points of the 1980s), you can't ever impeach his guitar ability—or his ability to spot an exceptional guitarist when he hears one. His label purports to be a home for such players, and certainly Emmanuel is a fastball down the middle of the plate in this regard.

Rockers will be quite satisfied with the set, especially with the stunning Beatles medley, the "Here Comes the Sun" part somehow – with added melodic curlicues – sounding warmer and more inviting than even George's original on Abbey Road. But there's blues here, too, including the aforementioned "Georgia" and a rendition of "Amazing Grace" that will not only bring eyesight to the blind, but also will get atheists in the audience reconsidering. And that's what a good entertainer does, whether he's playing a freakin' didgeridoo, has at his disposal a 20-piece backing ensemble like James Brown used to, or, like Emmanuel, plugs in a few little electric boxes between his acoustic guitar and the house sound system. He's over the top in places and in others he drops down to what a lot of people would normally consider a bit too-lite fare, but in the context of this immaculately recorded, two-hours-plus concert, it holds together well – a testament to this phenomenal player's showmanship. Even if acoustic guitar's not your bag, this guy's a world-beater, and you owe it to yourself to dive in. That is, if you consider yourself someone who likes good music in whatever form it comes.

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