Concert Hall, April 21
Three hours of Tommy Emmanuel and Jerry Douglas’s virtuosity must add up to about as many notes as there are stars in the sky. But, unlike those stars, these notes didn’t have much in the way of space around them. Close your eyes when either of them was playing solo, and you’d swear there were certainly two (and possibly three) guitarists on stage.
The most space they left actually came when they played together, which constituted an oddly small proportion of the three-hour show. Here were two of the most accomplished acoustic guitarists alive, with distinctive but eminently compatible approaches, and they only played four songs together. Among these was an exquisitely nostalgic Tennessee Waltz, where some molecules got to dance around the notes rather than being elbowed out of the way.
They also delighted with Springsteen’s I’m on Fire, although Emmanuel’s singing missed the song’s emotive bite. They concluded the duetting with a machinegun-velocity, bluegrass-tinged rendition of Hendrix’s Hey Joe, to which Douglas contributed gruff vocals and blistering Dobro.
His opening solo set ran the gamut of Americana, from the bluegrass of Josh Graves to the blues of Lead Belly (On a Monday, which he sang), via his originals and even Irish traditional music. Consistently striking was the voice-like quality of his playing, in terms of phrasing, dynamics and fluctuating timbre.
Emmanuel’s overlong solo set showed that while he has not fully shaken off the look-what-I-can-do mentality, he has become more of a genuine story-teller on the instrument. His off-the-dial facility was brilliantly exploited on McCartney’s Michelle, with magical kora-like or harp-like rippling harmonics.
Too often, however, his intent was to impress rather than touch, or at least communicate more than the buzz of playing the bejesus out of a guitar. The reverb-drenched sound (and heavy-metal lighting) became melodramatic, heightening music that often longed to be more intimate, such as his finest originals: Sail On (for his late brother) and The Duke (for John Wayne).