In 1997 Australian-born guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel recorded an album with Chet Atkins titled "The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World." Atkins, who was hospitalized with a brain tumor on the final day of recording, died last year, but his artistry and friendship continue to inspire Emmanuel's concerts.
At the Birchmere on Tuesday night, Emmanuel saluted Atkins with two fingerpicked gems: "Smoky Mountain Lullaby," a soulfully rendered and elegantly arranged Atkins ballad; and "The Man With the Green Thumb," a tune composed by Emmanuel that celebrated both his late friend's nurturing instincts and his alternating bass-style picking technique.
By turns, however, Emmanuel's touch became more animated, fiery, percussive and impressionistic. Playing an acoustic guitar equipped with a built-in microphone, he often evoked the rural thrust and amusing sleight-of-hand associated with such kindred spirits as Merle Travis, Roy Clark, Jerry Reed and Junior Brown. There were moments, too, when his far-reaching repertoire embraced ragtime and early jazz forms or evoked, intentionally or not, the harmonic-laced style of Lenny Breau and the highly idiosyncratic arrangements of Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges.
Other pieces ventured farther afield: "Initiation," an electronically enhanced soundscape, was inspired by Emmanuel's frequent visits to Aboriginal missions in the Outback, while "Mombasa" offered a rhythmically irresistible excursion through Kenya. Both tunes also demonstrated that a guitar isn't always a guitar in Emmanuel's extraordinary hands; sometimes it's a fiercely beaten drum conjuring another place and time.
With expert help from fellow guitarist Stephen Bennett, Emmanuel capped the concert in typically fleet-fingered, engaging fashion while paying homage to Duke Ellington and Lennon and McCartney.
-- Mike Joyce