What: Tommy Emmanuel featuring Pat Bergeson, John Knowles and Annie Sellick
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend
Cost: $39.50 or $49.50 in advance, $44.50 or $54.50 at the door
Contact: towertheatre.org or 541-317-0700
Tommy Emmanuel isn’t one to fuss over his recordings.
When you’re out on the road between 250 and 300 nights per year, you don’t have much time to tinker in the studio. Yet the Australian fingerstyle guitar virtuoso — one of only five players to earn the title of Certified Guitar Player from Chet Atkins — manages more albums than many of his contemporaries. Last year alone he released three: the entirely solo “It’s Never Too Late”; “Just Passing Through,” a collaboration with guitarist Ian Date and violinist Ian Date; and “Dov’è andata la musica” with Italian singer-songwriter Dodi Battaglia.
“If I can’t play it like I play it onstage, then I don’t do it; it’s as simple as that,” Emmanuel said recently from Denver, the first stop on his Classics & Christmas Tour that lands at the Tower Theatre on Tuesday. “I can sit and play you a song right now and play it as if I’m recording it, put my heart and soul into it. That’s how I’ve always been; I’ve never been one of these people who labors over stuff and can’t get it right. Thank heavens I’m able to concentrate and just get it together.”
“Christmas Memories,” Emmanuel’s second holiday album following 2011’s “All I Want For Christmas,” is a prime example of this. The laid-back disc, released in October, features his Classics & Christmas tourmates Pat Bergeson, fellow CGP John Knowles and Annie Sellick playing traditional carols (“Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song”) and new originals right after last year’s Christmas tour.
Emmanuel’s signature percussive style leads the way, and with three guitarists on board and Sellick on vocals, there’s no shortage of tasty playing. Between (or often in the middle of) songs, the musicians laugh into the microphone or give encouragement to each other after a particularly ripping solo. It’s no accident the record sounds like four friends jamming together in a room.
“We sat in a semicircle, so we had mics on our voices and mics on our guitars,” Emmanuel said. “And we just played the stuff as if we were sitting around the hotel room playing for ourselves, kind of thing. Annie did a great job on the vocals. Everything was live; there was no going back and trying fixing things up or doing anything like that.”
The album offers a good example of the second set Emmanuel and company will deliver in Bend. True to the tour’s name, the first set will feature Emmanuel solo performing music from throughout his career.
All four musicians have toured and played together for many years. Emmanuel can once again thank his hero Atkins for the musical chemistry he’s forged with them.
“The common thread through this whole thing is John and Pat, and I know each other and met each other because of Chet Atkins,” Emmanuel said. “John worked with Chet for many years doing his arranging and writing his books and keeping a record of his arrangements and all that. … And Pat was working in Chet’s band when I met him; he was quite a young man then. We’ve known each other a long time.”
Atkins’ signature fingerpicking style — playing bass notes with the thumb while fleshing out syncopated rhythms and notes with the other fingers — helped inspire Emmanuel to pick up the guitar in the first place. He first heard Atkins on the radio as a young boy, and by age 6 he was touring with his family’s band.
Proficient on bass and drums as well as guitar, Emmanuel played in numerous bands in the 1970s, including New Zealand rock group Dragon. Though he’s known for his lengthy tours today, back then he made his living mostly through session work.
“I was a full-time studio guitar player, and that’s what I always wanted to do and I enjoyed that,” he said. “But every now and again we would go on the road, and I had forgotten how much fun it was on the road, and I’d think, ah, I gotta do this again. I like both; I like being home and being able to work in studios and interact with other musicians, and I like traveling around as well. I guess I’m fortunate that way — I know some artists who just hate traveling and just want to be home, and a lot of people don’t make it in the business because it’s too hard for them. But I’ve never been a person who has turned down work.”
Emmanuel would eventually meet and perform with Atkins until the latter’s death in 2001; their duo album “The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World” was released in 1997. Today Emmanuel feels a responsibility as a CGP to carry on Atkins’ legacy to the next generation of guitarists. He teaches music around the world, hosting guitar camps in his native Australia and the U.S. Earlier this year he hosted the first camp in Havana and said he’s working on a return camp to the island next year.
“(Atkins) was like a daddy to me, but at the same time it’s a responsibility, and my job to do the best I can with what I’ve got and hand it on. That’s the whole idea,” Emmanuel said.