Tommy Emmanuel, Chase Foster
Charleston Music Hall
June 26

The Australian acoustic virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel embodies everything the title “guitarist” should convey. For fellow pickers and fans of finger-style guitar, seeing Emmanuel perform was like coming face to face with a god.

During his 2008 show at the Music Farm, some of Emmanuel’s softer songs were drowned out by the boisterous bar, while many inconsiderately used the performance as background music. This time around, Emmanuel chose to play the Music Hall, which better suited his style. The auditorium was all ears.

Chase Foster, a Nashville songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, opened the show. Emmanuel handpicked him to tour, and it was clear why. The guy had the licks to cover Clapton’s “Change the World” and the soul to sing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” He played catchy tracks from his new album Half-Written Letters. The young talent held nothing back.

Emmanuel jumped right into his set with signature style on “Locomotivation.” He smiled with his head tilted back; he didn’t slow down through the first few songs at all. I was stunned, finally catching my breath when Emmanuel broke into a dozen or so corny jokes while switching guitars (my favorite: “I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize”).

At one point, Emmanuel donned a 1934 Gibson Kalamazoo. He sat down on a bench and shared the story of how he obtained the carefully crafted instrument, itself a work of art.

His expressive playing reflected his humble personality. He recited the lyrics to “You Needed Me” by Anne Murray before picking through a heartfelt instrumental rendition. A fast-tempo “Guitar Boogie” brought gasps, and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” demonstrated Emmanuel’s kinship to the great Chet Atkins.

“Mombasa” was inspired by rolling African rhythms and the time Emmanuel spent in Kenya. “Initiation” told the story of an aboriginal ceremony through a composition heavy on atmospherics, electronic delay effects, and hand percussion (on the guitar itself).

His set rolled on with the beautiful “Angelina,” a song for his daughter. There was a tactful version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a few songs from his upcoming album Little By Little. He welcomed Foster back at the set’s end for a fiddle vs. guitar throwdown on “Cannonball Rag.” After two hours, Emmanuel finally put the guitar down, but not before an encore of his awesome take on “Classical Gas.” He raised his guitar in the air, as if to remind everyone he just plays only one instrument.

Afterwards, I felt that I’d seen one of the most entertaining players and performers alive.

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