Review: Acoustic guitarists Tommy Emmanuel, Mike Dawes dazzle Garde crowd

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Thursday, as part of a near sellout crowd in the Garde Arts Center waiting for the start of a concert featuring acoustic guitar supermen Tommy Emmanuel and Mike Dawes, I met a woman named Jan. Turns out Jan lives in Pennsylvania and had traveled to New London so she could see Emmanuel perform for the 169th time.

One-hundred and sixty-nine times.

Snort THAT, Phish kooks!

Me? I'd never seen Emmanuel or, for that matter, Dawes. But let me now say that, based on the pair's respective sets, I know what I'm doing for the next 168 days.

Both guitarists have distinctive styles, and each performs feats of vision, creativity and dexterity that transform the traditional "I went to see a band" construct into something akin to a "how did he do that?" illusory experience. It was sort of like Michael Hedges and Chet Atkins if they'd gone together to a Halloween party as Penn & Teller.

No tricks, though — just true, otherworldly guitar artistry.

Dawes, a tall young Brit who weighs about 14 pounds, with long hair, a wispy beard and a spotlight smile, wearing soda-straw jeans and a baggy T-shirt to allow for plenty of arm movement, opened with a 40-minute musical seduction. The evening's charm was set during his first tune when a janitor with a broom swept the stage behind him. It was the prankster/headliner Emmanuel.

Dawes was funny and self-effacing throughout. His grimoire calls for a mélange of tapping, harmonics, slapped-hand percussion, solicitious use of effects, and 10 fingers operating with wild independence — far from of the traditional, one-hand-plucks-strings/one-hand-configures-chords-or-scales.

He used his second song, a gasp-inducing arrangement of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," as a step-by-step primer to share with the audience how he pulls it all off. Layer by layer, Dawes effectively becomes a one-man band who uses his guitar to capture all elements of rhythm, bass, lead, percussion and vocal melody. Over 40 minutes and a mixture of original material and clever covers, Dawes made scores of new fans — as evidenced by the standing ovation and a huge crush of folks at his merch table during the break.

The cheery, sturdy, 60-something Emmanuel, a native of Australia, took the stage and, marching and bobbing in place, proceeded to mesmerize, transfix and otherwise delight for the next hour and a half. His technique is firmly rooted in Chet Atkins-style fingerpicking, but that simplifies the unique applications and innovations he brings to that framework. At one point, as the crowd oohed and ahhed, Emmanuel, in a tomato soup-colored shirt and nylon/denim pants, offered a sly grin and said, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" He spoke the truth.

With his own songs and covers by artists from Merle Travis to "House of the Rising Sun," Emmanuel wittily nuanced rock, classical, country, blues, boogie-woogie, jazz and pop. Had he left anything out? Oh, yes, he said. Polka. So he blistered into a workout that sounded like Lawrence Welk in a meth frenzy. Also, a Beatles medley segued into "Classical Gas" — an exercise that provided an idea of what being there for the Big Bang explosion must have been like. Insane.

Worth noting: Dawes referenced a "dark month" his family experienced in May. Emmanuel spoke proudly about recently becoming an American citizen. Both were sharing that, through the power of music, people can heal and celebrate. Their considerable gifts are clearly fueled by joy, spirit and passion. It was beautifully contagious.

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