Without Music, Life Would be a Mistake

I don’t always title a blog post with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, but I make an exception in this case. I want to take a break from the Galápagos Islands series to write about a show that we attended at the Tennessee Theater on Thursday, March 12, 2020. I bring it up for two reasons, so let’s start with the first.

It was a fantastic show!

If you are not familiar with the Tennessee Theater, let me tell you a little bit about it, and why we love to go there. The theater opened in 1928, and like modern theaters of the times, it featured a Wurlitzer Organ to entertain the crowd before the shows and to play along with the occasional silent film. That year started with “The Fleet’s In” starring Clara Bow.

The Wurlitzer Organ. Now on a platform that can be raised from the pit up to stage level.
Iconic Tennessee Theater sign in downtown Knoxville

From the start it wasn’t just movies, and a surprising number of celebrities have trod the boards. In the 30’s, Roy Acuff started his musical career there, and his trio were regular performers. Tom Mix brought his wild west show, which must have been interesting since there was no stage entrance from street level – the horses had to be brought in through the lobby. The Ziegfeld Follies came through town with the legendary Fanny Brice, and Helen Hayes appeared on the stage in “Mary of Scotland” in 1935.

The list goes on; Glenn Miller, Desi Arnaz, Anthony Perkins and more appeared during the early heyday period.

The 70’s were not good to the theater, with it closing and re-opening a few times in attempts to regain past glory. The 80’s opened with a promising start when The Preservation Jazz Hall Band appeared. Director Frank Capra spoke and answered questions before a screening of his film “You Can’t Take it With You”, and the Knoxville Ballet, Knoxville Opera Company and Knoxville Orchestra were introduced.

Renovations also started in the 80’s, and performances that decade and into the 90’s by a diverse group of musicians – Cab Calloway, Chick Corea, the Everly Brothers, Kenny Chesney, Robert Palmer, Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins to name a few.

Things really began to happen at the millennium changed, when it was officially designated the State Theater of Tennessee and a National Heritage Site. Fund raising began and in 2003 the doors closed for two years while a massive renovation project restored the theater to its current splendor.

View from the balcony

The newly expanded and upgraded stage area meant that Broadway shows were now possible, and touring companies have been staples of the theater season ever since. Just since we have been in Knoxville, we’ve enjoyed shows like Jersey Boys, The King and I, Spamalot, A Christmas Story, Something Rotten, The Simon and Garfunkel Story and more.

From the expanded stage, looking out into the audience
Front lobby, with restored chandeliers
Detail on chandelier

We’ve also been to great comedy shows there, and unfortunately did not move fast enough to get tickets when acts like Willy Nelson and Bob Dylan came to town.

The concert we attended on the 12th was just a shot in the dark when I ordered the tickets a few months earlier. It was billed as “Celebrated acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel with guest Sierra Hull”. I did a search on YouTube, listened to a few of his clips, and thought, sure, could be fun. For some reason, I didn’t bother to look for the opening act. In fact, at the time I think I assume “Sierra Hull” might be his back up band.

When we arrived to a full and excited house, the opening act equipment was of course already setup on stage. I saw a fiddle, stand-up bass, a couple of mandolins, acoustic guitars, one electric guitar, a dobro (which gave me the opportunity to point out to Rita that I didn’t have a dobro yet – or a mandolin. Let’s face, we’re living like animals!), a few amps, and no percussion at all (no drum kit). Given that instrumentation, I thought “Ok, it is probably going to be some May the Circle be Unbroken, Man of Constant Sorrow kind of stuff. Basic Appalachian Bluegrass.

Which would have been fine. Nothing against some good folk music. But to our surprise and delight, Sierra Hull turned out to be a 28-year old mandolin virtuoso, accompanied by three other excellent musicians. They launched right into what was an incredible set, combining elements of Appalachian Folk with jazz and blues, and coming out with something new and wonderful. Sierra has a strong and beautiful voice, and the band harmonized perfectly.

What struck me most about the show, was that normally the mandolin is used as a rhythm instrument, with an occasional solo break. Here, although she did sometimes switch to acoustic guitar, the mandolin was often used as the lead instrument, with the whole band taking turns to solo. The fiddle and bass were also sometimes employed just to create a mood – a single mournful bow across the strings for instance – but also for their own counter melody lines and solos.

Sierra Hull and friends

Below is a video of the title track to her latest release, “25 Trips” to give you a taste.

Title song from Sierra Hull’s new album

Take my word for it, performing this well at this level, with intricate lines all intersecting, and doing it without a drummer keeping the time is pretty remarkable.

They played for almost an hour, and at the end a standing ovation showed that Rita and I were not alone in our appreciation of what a stunning opening act we had just enjoyed.

There was a short intermission – it doesn’t take long to reset the stage when the main act only needs a few acoustic guitars, a mic stand, and a stool – and soon the lights dimmed for the main event, Tommy Emmanuel.

Like I said earlier, I had seen a few impressive YouTube clips, but that was it. I admit I was wondering if a solo guitarist would be able to carry a full hour or more of music by himself without it getting a bit, well, tedious I suppose.

I should add too that I am no stranger to excellent guitarists. I’ve seen Pat Metheny on several occasions (the most recent here in Knoxville at The Bijou), Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucía, Steve Howe, and although I never saw him live, Frank Zappa has been a favorite of mine since junior high days and the Mudshark. The list goes on.

Even with that background, I had no idea what we were in store for. Right from the start, when he walked out and simply said into the mic, “Hey, check this out!” and launched into his first number, we were amazed and thrilled. It is hard to describe the level of musicianship (with a small dose of ham) he displayed for almost two hours!

Each song had brilliant guitar riffs and virtuosity at an incredible level. You know how at a concert there is usually one song where a guitarist will play a “showcase solo” that has everyone on their feet? Well, Tommy played at that level or higher all night long. At least twice, Rita turned to me and said “How does he keep that up?”. Indeed, just when you thought he had reached a peak, he would suddenly crank the speed up by 50% for the rest of the tune.

Tommy Emmanuel

He professed to an early love of Chet Atkins, whom he sited as his biggest influence growing up in Australia. It was certainly evident in his playing style, as in many tunes his thumb would be picking out a bass line while his fingers were playing chords or a lead line. He also used dramatic slaps on the strings or rhythmic palming of the guitar to add a percussive element here and there.

Here’s a sample of his style from YouTube, playing a Beatle’s medley. The finger picking method I mentioned is very obvious (and impressive) in “Day Tripper”.

Just when we thought we had seen all you could possibly see in one night, towards the end of the show Tommy invited Sierra to come out on stage with him. Now as a musician, let me explain that just walking out on the stage and standing next to a player of his caliber takes enormous balls – bright and shiny ones, in fact. And to actually play along with them?! You would have to be insane.

Well, for the next fifteen minutes we were blessed with some fabulous guitar/mandolin duets like I have never heard. Watching these two musicians, with a 40 year age difference, performing together was one of the best concert moments I have ever been fortunate enough to witness. Sierra not only did not embarrass herself, she kept up with him through some hellishly complicated melodies, trading off solos. At one point, Tommy jumped towards her and said “Together this time!”, meaning they should both solo at the same time.

It was obviously unplanned, as she looked first surprised, then delighted to take up the challenge. It was a joy to see the two of them, grinning like kids as they watched each other’s fingers flying over the fretboards as they matched each other – sometimes playing together, sometimes one would go high and the other low, sometimes in harmony, but always maintaining a coherent tune.

This was the kind of performance that amateurs like myself watch, then go home and burn all of their instruments.

Two Masters at play

By the end of the night, after three hours of wonderful music, Rita and I agreed that this was one of the best concerts we have ever experienced. We really feel lucky to be in a city that attracts such a diverse and talented group of performers.

See, it is not just the Tennessee Theater. We’ve seen comedians Lewis Black and Michelle Wolf at The Bijou, along with the afore mentioned Pat Metheny. The Civic Center gets musical acts, and Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled for the summer. There was James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt at the Tompson Boling Arena on the UT campus, with Elton John coming up in June, and so on.

That’s why I hate to get into the second reason I started this post. Two days after the show the Tennessee Theater, and all of the other venues in town, announced that they were cancelling or postponing further events until at least the first week of April.

This of course is a great loss culturally, but it is hard to over emphasize the ripple effect that these cancellations, and the ones like it all across the country, will have on the economy.

A case in point, we had tickets to see the musical A Bronx Story on April 4th, our anniversary. We had planned to have dinner at one of the many fine restaurants within blocks of the show. Hundreds of others I’m sure had the same plans for the six performances that were cancelled, either for dinner, drinks afterward, or both.

A few months ago the same night we saw Lewis Black at the Bijou (another great show), the Goo-Goo Dolls had sold out the Tennessee Theater, and Garth Brooks had almost 90,000 fans in the UT football stadium. Millions of dollars flowed into the downtown businesses during that weekend.

It would be easy to get political and go into placing blame for weak early responses or lack of planning for the virus, downplaying the seriousness, even calling it a hoax for a critical period of time – and believe me, I am tempted.

But instead, I would just like ask everyone to take a moment to think about the short term and mid-long term effects of these shutdowns on our local economies. Mourn for a moment the loss to our souls of the relief and transformation that the arts bring us.

Sierra Hull at one point in the show mentioned that she has a new album just released, “25 Trips” (see video above), and they were supposed to be starting a 40-show tour the next day to promote it. But they had just been told all dates were cancelled.

Tommy Emmanuel likewise announced that his tour was cancelled. Both performers expressed their appreciation and gratitude for the size of the crowd, as they had been concerned they would be playing to a half-empty house at best. They acknowledged that they felt the energy of the crowd and responded in their performance, boosted a bit in the knowledge that it would be their last public show for the foreseeable future.

So I hope everyone gets through the coming weeks safely, and I hope the steps we are taking now will limit the number of the casualties as we wait for the virus spread to peak and eventually subside. But I also hope everyone will consider how much this shows that we are inextricably linked as a people – not just as a nation, but as a world. Consider how much the arts and sporting events bring to our lives, enriching not just our hearts but our wallets with the ancillary commerce they bring.

Stay strong, stay healthy, and stay rational, and may we all learn from this experience.

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2 Comments

  • Babs says:

    As always, a wonderfully written and inspiring post. Stay well yourself.

  • Dan Matthews says:

    Hey Jim,

    Excellent, as always.

    This may be your best piece yet; although I am biased.

    I’ve played the guitar for 50+ years; Tommy is one of if not the best I’ve ever heard. Improvised, structured, jamming…in any genre or style of music…..unbelievable. And not just lighting fast; clean, and melodic. Thanks to You Tube I’ve seen and heard many of his performances; would love to catch him live. Have you seen any videos of him playing with his brother before he died? Tommy is/was the better of the two, and his brother was outstanding.

    And you captured musician’s sentiments exactly; after hearing true brilliance you feel like burning your instruments.

    Your love and passion for music was so well expressed, I’m hopeful it ignited the same in your audience; extremely well done my friend.

    I’m certain you’ve thought of this, but you would be an excellent music review writer; Rolling Stone’s guys got nothing on you!

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