Changing the world one magical song at a time
How great is Australian guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel?
“If there’s anyone who can shred on acoustic guitar with jaw-dropping effect, it’s Tommy Emmanuel,” raved Guitar World. “This man knows how to coax the most expressive melodies, rhythms and counterpoints out of his guitar.”
“For fellow pickers and fans of finger-style guitar, seeing Emmanuel perform was like coming face-to-face with a god,” lauded a Charleston City Paper review.
“Imagine Chet Atkins with the testosterone of Eddie Van Halen,” praised guitar legend Steve Vai.
Widely considered to be one of the greatest living acoustic guitarists, Emmanuel fuses elements from blues, country, rock, classical and Spanish music, often playing the bass, melody and lead parts at the same time as a one-man-band.
Making his Hawaii debut, the acclaimed guitarist is excited to finally play Maui.
“I’ve never been to Hawaii and I’ve always wanted to go,” he says on the phone from New Zealand. “I’ll be at the Blue Note in Honolulu and then come on to Maui.”
Performing solo here, Emmanuel says he loves the total freedom of being on stage by himself.
“I can play whatever I want. I decide what I’m going to start with and take it from there. I draw from a repertoire of original songs or I can play a Beatles’ song or whatever people like. I like the show to be spontaneous.”
YouTube concert videos demonstrate how he enthralls audiences. There’s a clip of a 2013 show in Shanghai, China, where fans are positively ecstatic singing along to the Beatles’ covers he often plays. One young fan seems so moved he has tears in his eyes.
“It’s like that a lot, especially in Asian countries,” he says. “I’ll play a song and the whole audience sings the melody. It’s incredible.”
With no formal training, Emmanuel taught himself guitar as a child, playing along with his parents’ records. A professional musician since the age of six, he began living out of a station wagon playing with his siblings in informal touring bands around Australia, including time as the Midget Surfaris, capitalizing on the ’60s surf music phenomenon.
“My father came up with the name when The Surfaris came out with ‘Wipe Out,’ “ he explains. “I used to play the drum solo. As we were kids, he came up with the brilliant idea of calling us the Midget Surfaris. My father was trying to be an entrepreneur. We sold everything, went on the road and went broke pretty quickly.”
His life changed at the age of eight when he heard legendary guitarist Chet Atkins play the song “Windy and Warm” on the radio.
“It was so exciting,” he recalls. “It was a moment that lit a fire under me.”
Absorbing the guitar styles of Merle Travis, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt, Atkins transformed them into a unique fingerpicking style of his own.
Emmanuel was mesmerized and spent countless hours trying to master complex fingerpicking techniques. Once when he was stumped about how to create a particular harmonic effect, Atkins appeared to him in a dream demonstrating how to do it.
“I was about 17 at that time and I had been trying so hard to figure out how Chet played these harmonics,” he recalls. “I couldn’t crack it. (Then) I had a dream and Chet came out in a tuxedo and played this song with all the harmonics and I saw it as clear as a bell. When I got up the next morning I remembered the dream, grabbed a guitar and figured it out. I still don’t know to this day — did my subconscious figure it out and show the conscious part of my brain or what happened. One day I couldn’t do it and it was a total mystery to me, and the next day I could do it like I’d been doing it for years.”
In time he would meet his idol, Atkins, and record the Grammy nominated “The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World” album with him.
“I got a letter from him and that was the greatest thrill of my life,” he says. “When I got to Nashville the first time in 1980 I called him and he said, ‘do you want to pick a little?’ It was beautiful. It was like he knew what I was going to do before I did it.”
Some years later, Emmanuel began recording with former Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman, who led a band called The Rhythm Kings.
“Martin Taylor played in the band and he had shown Bill a video of me playing a Merle Travis tune, and Bill loved Merle Travis. I moved to London and Martin called me and asked, ‘Have you heard of the Rolling Stones? You might get a call from Bill.’ So Bill calls me and asks, ‘Can you come and play like Merle for me?’ I played on a track and Bill said, ‘Why don’t you play on the rest of it.’ I ended up playing on the whole album. Then we did another album and I toured with him as the opening act. It was a great experience.”
Other rock stars he’s opened for include Eric Clapton, who invited him on a tour of Australia in 1990.
Hailed as “the Wizard of Oz,” Emmanuel’s latest release, “Live! At the Ryman,” illustrates his dazzling talent, beginning with the astonishing opening track, “Tall Fiddler.”
“What begins as an impressive display of his picking mastery –neatly articulated arpeggios with some funky, percussive strums and that quickly loping melody — transforms into something mind-boggling as Emmanuel speeds up the tune by double and does it all again,” marveled a Rolling Stone review.
“I love playing for people and changing their world through the magic of music,” he says. “And I like to constantly surprise people. There’s no greater thrill for an artist than to play to a new audience who have never seen you before.”
It was a real shame that Damian Marley blew off headlining his Maui Arts & Cultural Center concert so he could join Jay-Z on Saturday Night Live in an underwhelming duet on the song “Bam.”
The annual Maui Fair offers a stellar lineup of entertainment talent starting today with Zenshin Daiko at 6 p.m., followed by Pandanus Club at 7:30.
John Cruz will open up Friday’s entertainment at 6 p.m., followed by Willie K at 7:30, and a “World of Jam Dance Competition” with special performance by “World of Dance” Hawaii winners, Black Canvas closing the night at 10:30.
On Saturday, Sly Dog performs at 8 p.m., with Sit Means Sit at 9:15, and Da Braddahs at 10.
Kapena will open Sunday’s lineup at 11 a.m. Grammy winner Kalani Pe’a will perform at 1 p.m., and Halau Kekuaokala- ‘au’ala’iliahi under the direction of Iliahi and Haunani Paredes featuring Na Wai Eha performs at 6 p.m. And Nuff Sedd with Dani Girl and Pi’ilani Arias performs at 8. The 95th Maui Fair runs today through Sunday.
Lovers of the gypsy jazz-style of Django Reinhardt will be excited to hear that Maui’s hot band Gypsy Pacific has reformed and will present their first reunion performance at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Mulligans on the Blue in Wailea.
“I’m excited that Gypsy Pacific is back together after an eight year break,” says co-founding lead guitarist Tom Conway. “Our violinist Willy Wainwright recently moved back to Maui, so the music and spirit of Django Reinhardt is alive once again on our island.”
The band also features Marcus Johnson on upright bass and Phil Benoit on rhythm guitar. Their fans include Willie Nelson who proclaimed: “Gypsy Pacific was one of the first bands to grab my attention on Maui. I know Django would be proud that his music is so elegantly presented.” And Vintage Guitar Magazine hailed them as, “one of the hottest Hot Club-style bands in the U.S.”
“We are planning a show there (at Mulligans) once a month, probably every first Friday,” says Conway.
Cost is $39 for dinner and show or $20 for show only. For more information or to make reservations, call 874-1131.
Performing a tribute to Sublime, Badfish plays Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon in Paia at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. Over the past 16 years, Badfish members Pat Downes, Scott Begin and Joel Hanks have paid homage to the ska punk band, sometimes sharing the stage with band members including saxophonists Todd Foreman and Tim Wu, and Sublime’s original drummer Bud Gaugh. Admission is $25 at the door. For more information call 579-8085 or visit www.charleysmaui.com
Former “America’s Got Talent” contestant John Wilt will present a one-man show of Frank Sinatra’s classic songs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 in the MACC’s McCoy Studio Theater.
Some of Sinatra’s greatest hits include “Day In, Day Out,” “For Once in My Life,” “L.A. is My Lady,” “Witchcraft,” “Luck be a Lady,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” “New York, New York,” and “All or Nothing at All.”
Wilt will be accompanied by a big band soundtrack and the performance will be highlighted by historical film clips of Sinatra’s rise to fame as one of America’s premier singers.
Tickets are $25 (plus applicable fees). Proceeds will benefit Maui Mediation Services, Inc. For more information or to buy tickets, go to the box office, call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.