Tommy Emannuel in concert

An evening of dynamic acoustic guitar with special guest, Pat Kirtley.

By Bob Mitchell

Sometimes life gives us rare musical experiences. For me, July 13, 1999 will always stand out as the first time I heard Tommy Emmanuel. I was speechless within the first minute. I never knew fingers could move that fast and still produce clean notes that conveyed every emotion contained in a song. During an incredible two-hour, 15-minute set (without a break), he treated a sold-out audience at the Rudyard Kipling to 30 selections (I counted them!).

Emmanuel is a consummate musician and performer. Every possible expectation of the show was exceeded tenfold! Sometimes, he played so fast his hands were a blur. "Classical Gas" and "Day Tripper" were brilliant. Other times, he played so softly it was difficult to comprehend the transition. "Michelle,""I Have Always Thought of You" and "Since We Met" were as a lovely as a breeze blowing through the willows.

The previous week he had been in Nashville to take part in the annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Meeting. Not only did he meet his heroes Duane Eddy, Jerry Reed and Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith but also he performed with Chet. In fact, Atkins personally bestowed the prestigious CGP award on Emmanuel. After telling us he was still on a musical high, he played an unbelievable arrangement of "Guitar Boogie."

Emmanuel is the most original, powerful and talented guitarist I have heard. What he gave us was a gift. No one had to give an audience as much as he gave. This is a man who is used to opening for John Denver and playing for 15,000 people. This night, he came to Louisville for the first time and played for 150 fans with the same enthusiasm as if he were playing for thousands.

Unless you were there, or know Emannuel's work, you may not believe what you are reading. You may be thinking, "no one is that good." Don't take my word for it, listen to Chet Atkins:

"Upon hearing him play, I was amazed by his impeccable musical timing and coordination. He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest guitarists on the planet." Those are powerful words, especially coming from "Mr. Guitar!"

"Initiation" was the most unusual selection of the concert. He joked about playing it on his "thunder stick" (guitar and reverb unit.) It was an imaginative and intense piece that lasted eight minutes. This original composition was written to reflect pain, joy and endurance from a centuries old Australian Aborigines initiation ceremony. The sounds were hardly recognizable as a guitar. Rather, you had the feeling you were in a primitive surrounding with dozens of drums.

As the night was ending, Tommy asked his brother Phil to join him on stage. They opened with "Kentucky" and we loved it! They closed with a novelty number that allowed them to play one guitar at the same time.

In 1997, Emmanuel collaborated with Chet Atkins on a Grammy-nominated project titled The Day Fingerpickers Took Over The World. If you ever have an opportunity to hear him, do it, even if you have to sell the house and car.

After the concert, I spoke with Jim and Hermine Thompson, who drove to Louisville from Lebanon, Ky. for the show. They said, "He's fantastic! It was well worth the drive and it was a rare privilege to be in the same room with a man of such talent." They expressed the overriding consensus of an audience who gave him at least three standing ovations.

Pat Kirtley, Bardstown KY native, and 1995 national fingerstyle guitar champion opened the evening with sixty minutes of tasteful selections. He also made reference to the Atkins meeting in Nashville and mentioned being touched by the recent death of fiddler Randy Howard. He then played an original tune in tribute to Randy, "Last Fiddler's Waltz." It was a beautiful melody and I hope he records it. Pat was largely responsible for getting Emmanuel to Louisville, and I know one hundred and fifty folks who will be forever grateful.