Reviews / Review: Jaw dropping fretboard wizardry

Martin Taylor and Tommy Emmanuel: grooving and moving with serious panache - Photos: Chris Brown

There was a peculiar sound emanating from the Mareel auditorium on Thursday night. A thud, thud, thud.

No, it wasn’t the reverberations of a heavy-booted punter throwing some shapes on the dancefloor, or an empty bottle of Becks tumbling down the steps.

If you sneaked your head through the wooden doors then you would have been greeted with the sight of hundreds of jaws periodically dropping to the floor as virtuoso guitarist Tommy Emmanuel brought fretboard wizardry to the isles in style.


The renowned Australian took to the Lerwick venue as the Shetland Guitar Festival made a welcome re-appearance after taking a year off in 2013.

Tommy Emmanuel: 'This is the real world'.

It didn’t quite come back with a bang; it awoke from hibernation with a monumental crash, wallop and a great hurrah.

It was up to Norman Goudie and his band, however, to open the night and the three-day festival, with the local string smith melting through a selection of velvety, retro-tinged tunes.

A rendition of Harry Warren’s 1942 track There Will Never Be Another You saw double bass player Jack Robertson’s smooth lines walk into the limelight, whilst Goudie himself impressed with deft yet fluid bluesy jazz solo work.


Slap bang in the middle of it all meanwhile was the lesser-spotted vibraphone – a large yet dainty xylophone-esque instrument expertly played by Callum Nicolson.

Despite the deadpan humour and toe-tapping tunes, the night, however, was all about one man.

59-year-old Tommy Emmanuel, who has previously been heralded as the best acoustic guitar player in the world, strolled onto the stage before picking up by the neck one of three weapons from his arsenal – and he never looked back.


The speedy Australian may at times be levelled with accusations of on-stage indulgence, but Emmanuel’s penchant for masterful melody – and supreme showmanship – would have won over any naysayers.

And his gleaming smile and bouncing vibrancy meant that you were hypnotised into grinning along, as one punter said post-gig, to the point of having sore cheeks.

Emmanuel flitted between all-out acoustic wizardry and bluesy, sometimes vocalised tracks, with the former seeing the musician spider his way around the fretboard with gung-ho gusto and the latter painting things with a more reflective hue.

“I’d like you to meet the band”, he quipped, looking around at an empty stage. The Aussie, however, then introduced the bass line, the ‘drums’, the rhythm guitar and finally the lead – creating a one-man-band of sorts out of just six strings and the instrument’s wooden body.

It was this formula that served Emmanuel well, with the finger-picked To B or Not To B exuding a warm glaze and a dextrous arrangement of Somewhere Over The Rainbow showcasing fretboard gymnastics, whilst regular tap-happy percussive cameos gave a rhythmic radiance.

The speed-demon Guitar Boogie meanwhile brought the musician back to his childhood – he heard the twelve bar blues Arthur Smith tune when he got his first guitar aged four – whilst one of the night’s highlights, a medley of Beatles tunes, bewitched the packed crowd with a mash-up of well-kent hooks and thrilling, multi-textured majesty. You may never think of Day Tripper in the same way again.


You would have never known, but the stage was big enough for two. Emmanuel brought on esteemed collaborator and Guitar Festival curator Martin Taylor near the end of his set for some noodling duets, with the likes of Heat Wave grooving and moving with serious panache.

The duo, affectionally known as the Colonel and the Governor, were in their element as they became infected with smileitis, whooping into the rafters with delight.

And despite the endless myriad of notes played on the night, or the indefatigable guitar pizzaz, it was perhaps this joy, which was the one eminent theme of the gig.

Emmanuel, known the world over and probably playing live for the one millionth time, connected in this small town venue with the music with surefire delight, punching and kicking the air with pleasure and beaming with glee. And there was even time for a comedy ditty about donkeys and the word ass. As you do.

The musician hinted numerous times that he would like to return to Shetland – a place good for his ‘soul’ – in the future, perhaps to nestle up and ‘hibernate’ for a few months.

“This is the real world,” Emmanuel opined as he reflected on his trip, “and out there is the bullsh*t world”.

He pointed towards the door, and out towards the mainland and beyond. And for two exquisite and super-quick hours on Thursday night, it felt like there was nowhere else in the world more entertaining than the Mareel auditorium.

Chris Cope