Currently touring the UK, Grammy-nominated acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel has thankfully made Celtic Connections a key stop, performing on the second night of Glasgow’s global music festival. Sharing the tour is Grammy-winning guitarist and singer Molly Tuttle. She collaborated with Emmanuel on his track White Freight Liner Blues from his album Accomplice Two, which features collaborations with a number of other A-list musicians, including Tuttle, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Little Feat.
The two make a much-garlanded pairing: hailing from Australia, Emmanuel has been a much-hailed globe-touring guitarist from childhood, when he idolised guitar icon Chet Atkins, whom he went on to record with later in life. Two Grammy Award nominations and Australian Recording Industry Association ARIA awards have helped raise his already-respected status, and he has repeatedly been honoured in Guitar Player magazine readers’ polls, and featured on theirs and Vintage Guitar magazine’s covers. He was Music Radar’s readers’ poll winner of the Ten Best Acoustic Guitarists in The World.
Just turned thirty-one, Tuttle is noted for her picking prowess as a banjo player and guitarist, and was the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Player of the Year award, winning it twice, as well as the Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year award. She’s also a vocalist and songwriter, and her album Crooked Tree garnered a Best Bluegrass Album award alongside a nomination for Best New Artist, at last year’s Grammy Awards.
This might seem a far cry from a wintry Glasgow, but the city has an entrenched fondness for Americana – home of the band Texas, after all – and the Pavilion Theatre is packed when Tuttle takes the stage promptly at half-seven, with late-comers still heading for their seats. She dazzles from the start, with lightning-fast flat-picking on a six-string acoustic sending notes spinning out into the auditorium, and her voice very strong, maybe more than it seems on record. The home territory is Bluegrass – the strictly acoustic version of roots-country from the southern US, and yes she lives in Nashville, but she makes occasional forays into other genres, such as the Rolling Stones’ She’s a Rainbow – the sudden drop in pace of that song a rare let-up in the tempo.
There are cuts from the right-on-the-money current collection City of Gold, with the catchy Eldorado making an early appearance, and there’s a playful humour to the fore, for instance when she bids the audience to whistle a section of More Like a River, from that album – explaining that she would normally have her band with her (the response is tentative at first but better when she allows us to go round again.) Her technique remains captivating throughout, the rapid-fire semiquavers seemingly inside her guitar just bursting to be set free. Quieter and more introspective-sounding moments include a version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, which took root recording solo during lockdown.
The rapport with the audience only strengthens when she rightly comments that the theatre is as uncomfortably chilly on-stage as it is for the audience, and she’s somewhat envious of those of us who’ve kept our coats on. I noticed some still wore their hats and gloves throughout – a rather draughty introduction, for me, to the charming and popular 120-year-old Pavilion.
Tommy Emmanuel’s mastery of guitar extends way beyond Country or Roots – in fact beyond what you imagine is possible on a six-string acoustic. From his entrance, he’s stunning us with his jaw-dropping technical ability, honed since childhood, with a dizzying array of rippling harmonics, percussive effects, and the ability to set-up a repeated bass-line, chord vamp and top-line melody – and keep them all going – showcased by his Blue Moon. It recalls at times the fretting of jazz-great Django Reinhardt and is reminiscent of gifted player Martin Taylor, who does a one-man band take on the Beatles’ Day Tripper, which Emmanuel later performs. His songbook is eclectic, with an early-on take on Classical Gas, and Doris Day’s Secret Love.
With his showman-ruffled white shirt and a small table at his side with it’s difficult not to think of a magician and his tricks, and there are a few party-turns such as when his capo flies off the guitar neck in a mid-song change of key, or using a brush-stick to augment his mic, his forehead and Antonio Forcione-style guitar-body knocks, that he uses to generate an almost-entirely percussive display. It’s dazzling and showy, but he is a sincere player, with a firm take on guitar-picking heritage: his anecdote about meeting and collaborating with his idol, American finger-picking master Chet Atkins (1904 – 2001), is touching – the ageing guitar legend was second to no-one, but he clearly found a kindred spirit in the younger Tommy and they recorded together in 1997 at Chet’s home, and at 44 Emmanuel became one of only five people awarded a CPG (Certified Guitar Player) accolade by Atkins himself, ‘In recognition of his contributions to the art of fingerpicking’.
The evening ends with the return of Tuttle to perform White Freight Liner Blues and two more blasts of combined finger-picking prowess to stagger the senses.
With thanks to Gordon Reid for his assistance with photos.