Saturday, 20 October 2012

A Night With Tommy Emmanuel

Last night, Satthia and I went for Tommy Emmanuel's yearly October gig (he's been giving shows every year since 2009 now) at the Esplanade.

As we entered the Esplanade foyer, we were greeted by quite a scene: not only was there a dance exhibition happening smack in the middle of the concourse, there were so many people carrying all manner of stringed instruments (guitars, basses, ukuleles and the like) in their cases.

We knew at once that a good number of people had turned up for the Tommy Emmanuel show.

We got in early - at around 7.20pm, ten minutes before the listed show timing - and settled down into our seats. By 7.30pm, around two-thirds the hall had filled up, but the number of empty seats left was still obvious. So much for a good turnout, we thought.

We didn't spend much longer thinking, though, the star of the show burst onstage shortly after and - as he did two years ago (yes, I've been to more than one Tommy Emmanuel gig. Be jealous.) - immediately dived into an uptempo number complete with his customary percussive fillers and technical wizardry. The crowd got absolutely fired up, and the tone for the night was set.

Then, just as he started his second tune, the latecomers filtered in. Lo and behold, nearly all the seats in the concert hall were occupied. It never ceases to amaze me how many people manage to be late for absolutely anything going on in their lives. I mean, it's Tommy Emmanuel!

Not that I was distracted by the stragglers or anything - I was by then engrossed in what was happening onstage. The music was, obviously, upbeat at the beginning and technically far more impressive than anything I had ever seen live (his bluesy-jazzy rendition of Amazing Grace was particularly incredible - look at those freaking chord voices and changes!), but I harbored the little fear that Tommy would spend this gig exclusively playing new material. Me being me, I had gone for his 2010 gig as a first-timer hoping to hear his 'biggest hits' like Guitar Boogie ..

.. Angelina ..

.. and Classical Gas.

I did get to hear Angelina and Gas (and they were breathtaking) but not Boogie, which was kinda disappointing especially when Tommy came back onstage to cries of 'Encore! Encore! We want more!' and played a refrain of his very first piece.

I wasn't to be let down this time round, however.

During the 'second half' of the gig (there technically were no 'halves', since there was no intermission - I'm labelling this segment as such because it represents the point where the musical content and mood really swung during the show), Tommy changed guitars (from his standard-tuned guitar to his drop-D-tuned instrument), played a few tunes and then fitted a capo onto his guitar's second row of frets.

'Oh my god,' I turned around and said to Satthia.

True enough, Tommy busted out a rendition of 'Angelina', much to the delight of the majority of the crowd, myself squarely included. In 2010, Tommy had played 'Angelina' in a really cutting and heartfelt way; he even put words to the signature chorus melody. This time round, he took the song much slower and let each note really drag and ring. After the song, he stepped up to the mike and said "That's Angelina" and cracked a little grin before continuing, "She's my youngest daughter; she's fourteen and studying in public school in England.."

His voice trailed off somewhat. We got the message.

If the 2010 rendition could evoke tears from the audience, the 2012 one would surely have evoked sad, sad sighs.

No one could be sad for much longer, however, as Tommy took the mike again and declared: "Who's a big Beatles fan here!?"

The audience, knowing what was coming, started to cheer raucously.

"Okay, wonderful, I've got some Rolling Stones tunes for you."

Cue laughter and one or two 'Oyyyyyy's from the top level of seats.

"Just kidding. Anyway, I'm gonna start off this Beatles montage with a song by George Harrison."

And then came 'Here Comes The Sun', followed by tunes like 'When I'm Sixty-Four', 'Day Tripper' and 'Lady Madonna'. Classic stuff. By then, I was grooving and clapping to the beat in my seat  - a tiny group of not more than six or seven started to follow suit - but unfortunately, the audience lived up to its Singaporean billing and largely sat there stock still in a mixture of awe and stiffness. Tommy Emmanuel was freaking doing everything on stage - prancing around, headbanging, taking up various 'guitar poses' - short of asking his crew to flash giant 'HEY GUYS, CLAP ALONG WITH ME' words on the wall, and yet here those people were, treating this gig as if it was a 1980's Pavarotti show. Sigh.

There was still more to come from the legend.

He picked up his newest instrument - a Maton Forrest Gump edition, based on what he said - and fiddled around with it. It was tuned to D. I wondered immediately what was coming next.

It was Guitar Boogie.

And the crowd went batshit crazy, really for the second time the entire gig.

More classic numbers like 'Purple Haze' and 'The Trails' (a brilliant, haunting piece by anybody's standards) followed, and Tommy eventually signed off with one of his trademark several-minute-long percussion solos that got the crowd roaring and barking for more when he left the stage.

He did return for the encore (he always does) and played 'Halfway Home', a nice tune with a chill country-rock vibe and a perfect show-ender.

Everyone left satisfied; Tommy had truly 'showed up and done his best'.

There is really nothing negative to be said about seeing the world's greatest acoustic guitarist in the flesh anyway.

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