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Tommy Emmanuel, JD Simo

Wednesday 20th March 2019

Royal Festival Hall, London

Following the release of 2018's ‘Accomplice One’, a hugely successful UK tour and his first ever European Guitar Camp in Scotland, esteemed Grammy-nominated guitarist, composer and guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel stopped off at London's Royal Festival Hall last Wednesday night as part of his March 2019 UK Tour. Accomplice One’, was a 16-track collaborative album and was released in January last year via The Players Club/ Mascot Label Group.  Produced by Emmanuel - the album features guests including Jason Isbell, Mark Knopfler, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Douglas, Amanda Shires, Ricky Skaggs and David Grisman.
Tommy's special guest was JD Simo, heralding from Chicago, who also appears on 'Accomplice One', and although this was the first time we had seen Emmanuel, we were already well acquainted with JD as the Nashville-based singer-guitarist of SIMO, their recent albums ‘Let Love Show The Way’ (2016) and ‘Rise & Shine’ (2017), deservedly met with huge praise, as was their scintillating live performances across Europe for their blend of Blues, Rock, Psychedelia, Funk, Jazz and jam sounds. Indeed, JD made his way on to the vast but empty RFH stage, without his SIMO compadres Adam and Elad for his solo set, although accompanied by his trusty electric blue guitar in hand, this seemed light years away from when we first saw JD with his guitar case, fighting his way through the cramped crowd at the St. Moritz Club in Soho in November 2015. Although our conclusion that night that "you have to question whether we will ever be able to witness this intimacy again", didn't forsee his latest debut solo album, ‘Off At 11’, released at the beginning of this month, a Psychedelic, free-flowing, dynamic kaleidoscope of sound, energy and vibe that incorporates elements of Acid Rock, traditional Blues, Folk, Soul and free form Jazz around JD’s improvisational skills. The recording of the electric tour de force took place over a three day period in the summer of 2018 during a brief break in touring that included JD’s first shows as a newly cultivated member of [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh and Friends. Showing off not only his guitar and vocal abilities, but also the incredible rhythm section of drummer and SIMO bro Adam Abrashoff and bassist Luke Easterling, the eight musically dense songs that make up the album were laid down with no edits and no other studio trickery.
JD's foot tapping opener in his forty minute set, saw him not only pounding his guitar, but he also managed to release some awesome fuzzy tone's to match his bearded appearance."I'm JD Simo" he announced to the crowd "and I'm an alcoholic" he jested, as he introduced 'Mind Trouble' from the new album - a real lesson in Blues with some great slide guitar. And if the JD virgins sitting in the RFH wanted proof that this guy can sing as well as play his guitar, then the slower Willie Dixon's Blues classic 'You Need Love', the single from the the album, nailed it. With influences as diverse as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Captain Beefheart, Miles Davis and the Allman Brothers, to Blues guitarists such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, it was no surprise to hear JD recount listening to BB King when he just twelve years of age, as he paid his dues with a Cindy Walker cover, and yet another great vocal - so much so that you couldn't hear a pin drop. JD then thanked Tommy for the tour, but was very modest as he admitted he was way out of his comfort zone and hoped that the audience were happier than when they came in! Well just to prove the point, it wouldn't be Simo without 'A Little Help From My Friends' as he despatched this Beatles classic in true Cocker style, 'that' classic note, once again making the proverbial hairs stand up on the back of your neck, duly getting the rapturous applause it deserved from a genuinely happy crowd. Still can't get use to JD being on his own, but he is a class act. Make sure that you check him out when he headline's London's iconic 100 Club on Tuesday 9th April.
In fact the last time we saw a gig at the Royal Festival Hall, it was Steve Hackett's Genesis Revisited which included a 41 piece Heart Of England Philharmonic Orchestra! Step forward Tommy Emmanuel on his tod onto a desolate stage in a cavernous RFH with just three acoustic guitars to back him up! Well, we needn't have worried, given that Emmanuel has been a professional player from the age of six, he is a member of the Order of Australia - bestowed on him by The Queen no less (to recognise Australian citizens for achievement  or meritorious service), four time winner of Australia’s Best Guitarist Award, two time ARIA (Australian Grammy) winner and he performed at the closing ceremony at the Sydney Summer Olympics in 2000 - to a televised audience of 2.85 billion viewers! Not only that, but in 1999 Chet Atkins presented Tommy with the Certified Guitar Player Award - distinguished as being one of only five musicians handpicked by his mentor. What a build up - time to Rock on Tommy!
Mic'd up to the the eyeballs, the crystal clarity of Emmanuel's dexterity was a joy to behold, none more so than on his medley of 'Deep River Blues', 'Blue Smoke' and 'Cannonball Rag' which saw the crowd, which had nicely filled out by now, "whoopin" from the cheap seats. It all appeared effortless, as Tommy jokingly looked at his watch, as he moved onto a delightful, foot tappin' slow shoe shuffle before sitting down to tell his Mark Knopfler anecdote about two drunk guys at a bar, cue the amusing 'You Don't Wanna Get You One Of Those' which he co-wrote with the Dire Straits frontman for the new album. Another anecdote about trains introduced the next instrumental with its Harry Potter cinematic chords - think German 'Classical Gas', before the more familiar chords of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' saw the audience hanging off of every note. Beautiful. Emmanuel genuinely shared with the audience how lucky he was to have his 'day job' - although the sacrifice of being away from Oz was understandably reflected in a number of his songs including 'Angelina', dedicated to his daughter who was actually in the audience. Tommy also spoke fondly of his time living in the UK in Lingfield, of which he played a delightful, slow, stand out, instrumental, before asking whether anyone liked the Rolling Stones? "That's ok" - he joked - "as I'm going to play The Beatles!" Well, who needed a band, given this Certified Guitar Player anyway? 
Looking at his different set lists between gigs, this guy can play anything! To be fair Emmanuel stopped short of asking for requests, but he did let us in on a secret that he would be singing a certain 'Sergeant Pepper' classic to himself soon for his coming birthday in May. Cue 'When I'm 64' plus a Beatles medley including 'My Guitar Gently Weeps' and 'Lady Madonna', before ending with Mason Williams' awesome  'Classical Gas'. Wow. Well there's only so much you can do with an acoustic guitar right? Wrong! Tommy further demonstrated his versatility with a drum solo! No mass exodus to the washrooms here, as we looked on in disbelief given Tommy's snare drum percussion shenanigans using his mic'd guitar. Time for Emmanuel to take a deep breath as he finished with his poignant 'Rachel's Lullaby', written for his baby daughter - in Tommy's own words - his 'Blackbird'. "It was in tune when I bought it" Emmanuel joked as he tuned his guitar, whilst again saying how lucky he was to do what he does, as he invited JD back on to the stage for a jam and a joint vocal. Tommy and JD finished with '(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay', Otis Redding's classic that they both recorded on 'Accomplice One', leaving us with one last duelling guitar salvo. There was one more from Emmanuel, 'Sail On', movingly dedicated to his late brother Phil, albeit with his amusing heaven anecdote, before Tommy returned for a very short instrumental encore. Emmanuel proved that he's a breathtaking live artist as much as he is on record, and his performance was one of irresistible showmanship, exhilarating finger picking and outstanding musicianship. A performance not to have been missed. 
AJ (Photos courtesy of John Bull)

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