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Jeff Moehlis: Tommy Emmanuel Live! At the Marjorie Luke!

The finger-style guitarist will play at a benefit concert July 22 for the Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebration

Finger-style guitarist Tommy Emmanuel is sure to wow the audience at the Marjorie Luke Theatre in Santa Barbara on July 22. Click to view larger
Finger-style guitarist Tommy Emmanuel is sure to wow the audience at the Marjorie Luke Theatre in Santa Barbara on July 22. (Publicity photo)

One can describe the playing of finger-style guitarist Tommy Emmanuel with words such as "dazzling" or "stunning," but really he has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. And, what luck! Santa Barbara will get a chance to do so on July 22 at the Marjorie Luke Theatre at a benefit concert for the Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebration.

Tickets are available by clicking here.

Born in Australia, Emmanuel started performing professionally at age 6 as part of a family band. He went on to play session gigs and was part of the rock group Dragon in the 1980s, but his career really took off when he embarked on a solo career as an acoustic guitarist extraordinaire. In this mode, he has released dozens of albums and wowed audiences at thousands of shows. His most recent album, Live! At the Ryman!, documents a triumphant 2016 concert at the famed Grand Ole Opry.

It's worth emphasizing that Emmanuel is not just about technical mastery. He's also an incredibly engaging showman, so you don't have to be a wannabe guitar hero to enjoy an Emmanuel concert.

Here's what he had to say about the upcoming show and more.

                                                                        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at your upcoming show?

Tommy Emmanuel: I'm going to be playing a lot of stuff from the latest recording that I'm doing. There's a lot of new songs in the show. I'm going to play a real mixture of old and new stuff. I think I'm going through a period where my playing's really improving on a daily basis. The harder I work, the better I'm getting. So I'm on a mission, you know? [laughs] That's always been the driving force in my life. I'll have Richard Smith with me, who's one of my favorite guitar players. He's doing the first set, and he's always a guy who makes you really dig deep and raise your game.

JM: Can we look forward to any drum solos on the guitar?

TE: Yeah! I try to approach my drumming part of the show like a real drummer. I'm trying to create something totally different and unique. I don't incorporate drums into songs, as in trying to keep it all going and play a song around it, because that looks too much like a science experiment to me. So I play songs, but then I concentrate and just play and create a drum solo that kind of has a form to it and has a structure. Every night is different.

I mean, I don't really have anything structured as far as a show goes. I go out and make my mind up what I want to play first, and then I just kind of fly it from there. I know how it works, and what's going to work for the audience, and what songs I've chosen to have a go at tonight, basically.

JM: I saw you in Santa Barbara about a year and a half ago. Do you remember anything about Santa Barbara, or is there anything you're looking forward to doing while you're here?

TE: Well, Santa Barbara's one of the most beautiful places in that area. If I could afford it, I'd be living there! I don't know how people afford it, but anyway [laughs]. I guess maybe I'm in the wrong business!

JM: I enjoyed listening to your new Live! At the Ryman! album. What was that experience like for you, to play a solo show there?

TE: Oh, it was mind-blowing. I mean, I've been there so many times, but I've never done my own show there. It was a really special night. You know, I had to come out with all guns blazing — that's what I needed to do. So that's why the show opens with "Tall Fiddler." It's like I come out and really go for it at the start. The audience loved it — they went crazy [laughs]. The two hours just went so quickly. It just seemed like I got started and then it was over. If it feels that way, then it's moving along in the right way for me. But I approach every night pretty much like that anyway. I'll be up on my toes in Santa Barbara — you can count on it.

JM: I have no doubt [both laugh]. Of course, Chet Atkins had a lot of history at the Ryman [Auditorium], and he was a big influence on you. What was it like working with him, and what did you learn from him over the years?

TE: It was interesting working with a guy who's had that much experience. But actually, we approach things very similarly. I think the only difference between us was that I was a lot more rock 'n' roll, and he was a lot more country. He was much more reserved, and I'm much more outgoing.

But together onstage, it was a good chemistry. We'd come off from playing the show, and he would turn to me, and he'd say, "Oh, fooled 'em again." [laughs] He was always saying, "Well, if I can get away with it tonight, I'll have a chance at it tomorrow." There was no ego involved. It was so sweet and so laid back. And that's what sets you free, you know? You don't need to be carrying the weight of the world, thinking, "I've got to be known as the greatest blah-blah-blah." What satisfies me is doing a good job. If people are happy and we had a good crowd, and everybody had a good time, then I'm completely happy.

JM: It seems there's the danger that since you play so well technically, you might just have fellow guitar players listening to you. Do you have a strategy for having a broader appeal?

TE: My strategy is that I'm trying to write the best songs that I can. I'm not trying to impress musicians. I'm trying to win the public. I'm trying to give the public something real, and I'm trying to take them somewhere out of their ordinary lives, and take them to another place during the time that they're in the hall with me. And I'll use whatever I can to entertain them, to distract them, to give them a good time. That's my goal. My goal is to entertain people and make them feel great.

JM: What's in the works?

TE: I'm in the middle of recording an album, a duet album. Actually, it's almost done. I've got one more track to do this week. That'll come out next year. It's duets with other artists — some with vocals, some instrumentals. Some of the other artists are Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Mark Knopfler, Amanda Shires, Alison Krauss, J.D. Simo, Jerry Douglas, David Grisman. It's all really people that I love and respect. It's been a joy to make this album. It's really going to be a landmark album in my life.

Click here for the full interview with Tommy Emmanuel.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

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