In Concert: Acoustic Guitar Masters featuring Tommy Emmanuel, Pat Kirtley, and Stephen Bennett. The Kentucky Center for the Arts, July 11, 2000

By Bob Mitchell

Great blurbs usually have three words/ Here's mine for this show: awesome, energetic, unbelievable, fantastic, incredible, astounding, spectacular, entrancing and remarkable. OK, three words for each guy, but we're still short of adequately descriptive phrases for describing a phenomenal evening of acoustic entertainment.

The concert featured Australian superpicker Tommy Emmanuel and two talented musical friends, Pat Kirtley and Stephen Bennett. Kirtley is a Bardstown native and 1995 National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion. Bennett is an Einstein look-alike who was the 1987 National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion and master of the "harp-guitar" (an unusual and beautiful instrument with an extra neck containing bass strings which can be plucked or allowed to ring in sympathetic vibration).

The show opened with a rousing version of "Steel Guitar Rag," with brilliant solos from each man. Then Bennett stepped forward to perform energetic and swinging renditions of old standards including "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "Ain't Misbehavin'." The crowd loved it and when the applause finally died down, Bardstown's Kirtley delivered a solid set featuring "Rural Life," "Grandpa's Lullaby," and an incredible arrangement of "Sails." Emmanuel clowned around during Bennett's and Kirtley's segment of the show, yet, at the same time, he played some of the nicest harmony lines I ever heard. Every possible expectation of the show was exceeded tenfold!

I first heard Tommy Emmanuel on July 13, 1999 and was speechless within a minute. I never knew fingers could move that fast, yet produce clean notes conveying every emotion contained in a song. A consummate musician and performer, Emmanuel is the most original, powerful, and talented guitarist I have ever heard. Chet Atkins said this about him: "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." In fact, Atkins personally bestowed the prestigious "Certified Guitar Picker" award on Emmanuel.

Two outstanding moments in the second half began when Emmanuel and Bennett teamed up for a gorgeous rendition of "The Water is Wide," featuring the "harp guitar." Then Emmanuel soloed on "Initiation," the most unusual, imaginative and intense piece in the concert. It is an original composition written to reflect pain, joy, and endurance from a centuries-old Australian Aborigines initiation ceremony. It was breathtaking.

The evening concluded with a wild rendition of Kirtley's "Fully Automatic Boogie," again with terrific solos from each man. The audience erupted with applause and was rewarded with an encore solo from each musician. What a night, I wish you had been there.

After the concert, I spoke with one of the KCA volunteer ushers who estimated the crowd to be 350 people. She said she had no idea what to expect when she signed up but was greatly surprised and pleased. She concluded saying, "If they come back, I'll sign up again."

Jim Thompson would agree with her. He drove to Louisville from Lebanon, KY in 1999 and again this year. He said, "It was well worth the drive. What a show!"