november 2008

Producer/Director: Peter Berkow
Favored Nations
Running time: 1 hr., 47 min.

Australian guitar master Tommy Emmanuel doesn't have the highest profile in this country, but aficionados of precise, soulful picking with an emphasis on melody-and let us say fans of Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Leo Kottke and Merle Travis-will find this near-two-hour set captured live at the Big Room a the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, CA, immensely satisfying. Emmanuel isn't simply a six-string virtuoso; he's a personable entertainer who has fun with the audience, as is evident from his comfortable between-songs chatter and self-deprecating humor, and with his music, as is evident from the energy in his playing and the frequent smiles on his face when he hits an especially challenging or cool passage in a tune and excutes it flawlessly. He works with three acoustic guitars (two of them showing the effects of being used on occasion as percussion instruments) and a couple of discreet effects boxes that are only minimally employed. He assays an eclectic mix of tunes, finding his way into each one and even unearthing something new in well-worn number. He turns Billy Joel's "And So It Goes" into a heart-tugging Appalachian hymn, beautiful and poignant in its delicate articulation. He puts some glide in his stride with a bopping take on Merle Travis's "Nine Pound Hammer," which features not only his tasty fingerpicking but a warm, effective vocal to boot. One of the many highlights is a sprightly Beatles melody, kicking off with an evocative "Here Comes the Sun" played high on the neck, with a capo set in the middle of the neck; without missing a beat, he ditches the capo and breaks into a ragtime-styled treatment of "When I'm Sixty-Four," which, when you think about it, perfectly captures the spirit of the original; and then closes the medley with a hard charging version of "Day Tripper" that gets the audience hollering. He summons a rarely heard blues-tinge in "Amazing Grace," and to put a fine point on it brings on harmonica man Bob Littell to add some down-home, sepia-toned poignance to the performance; Littell is also present for a lowdown give-and-take on a swaggering version of Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues" and a country-inflected rendition of "House Of the Rising Sun," during which Emmanuel explores the length of the neck in injecting rushes of cascading notes into the spaces of Littell's soloing, breaks into a dramatic vocal and engages Littell in some to-and-fro percussive set-tos. Maybe the most surprising tune in the set list is Kyo Sakamoto's classic 1963 chart topper, "Sukiyaki," which was beautiful when Sakamoto sung it in Japanese and loses none of its luster when Emmanuel treats the timeless melody with the attention to nuance it deserves. Emmanuel's fans will find this video version of his like-titled CD a welcome treat, whereas those unfamiliar with his artistry will get a bird's eye view of an artist who knows that even the best known songs have deep wells of expression left to explore and can get to those with a fresh perspective.—David McGee

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024