Tommy Emmanuel // Mike Dawes // Live Review // The Ulster Hall // Belfast

It has been years since I last immersed myself in the transcendent artistry of Tommy Emmanuel, and tonight’s spectacle unfolds at none other than Belfast’s iconic Ulster Hall – a venue that, for me, exudes perfection in every way. The sheer beauty of this space, with its expansive stage, sets an ideal backdrop for an event of this magnitude. As the first notes reverberate in this acoustic haven, the sound engineers, exemplified tonight by the extraordinary Steve at the soundboard, elevate the performance to a level where each strum and chord resonates like a symphony. The acoustics transform these guitars into veritable orchestras, and tonight, Steve holds the sublime responsibility of ensuring these maestros are not merely heard but experienced.

At the stroke of 8 pm, Mike Dawes graces the stage with an energy that propels him as if he were thrown from stage left. Marking his inaugural performance of 2024, Mike exudes enthusiasm, delighted to be back in the embrace of Belfast. Kicking off his set with the very first song he crafted at the tender age of 17 and paying homage to his hero, Irish guitarist Eric Roche, sets the stage for what promises to be an evening of unparalleled entertainment.

From the heartfelt tribute to Eric Roche, seamlessly transitioning into the electrifying rendition of Van Halen’s “Jump,” Mike not only performs but imparts a profound education in guitar virtuosity. He shares the essence of his approach to songs, the art of songwriting, and the compelling stories woven into the fabric of his tracks. Witnessing Mike’s personable nature on stage is a joy, undoubtedly cultivated through years of sharing the limelight with luminaries like Tommy Emmanuel. Commanding the stage with just an acoustic guitar demands a certain charisma, a focal point that some may shy away from, but Mike revels in it, making the seemingly impossible look effortless. It’s not just about the guitar playing; it’s the palpable connection with the audience that transforms this performance into an intimate affair within a venue capable of hosting 2,000 souls.

Speaking of souls, Belfast has poured out in abundance tonight, overcoming the January blues as payday finally arrives. The collective sigh of relief fills the air as Mike infuses his set with a rendition of Michael Hedges, channelled through Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, resonating with the powerful chords of “All Along The Watchtower.” #beautiful.

Mike Dawes

A brief interlude and we are back, 9 pm on the dot Tommy joins the stage and wastes no time making his mark on the evening. Sitting for the first two songs of the night, warming up those million-dollar hands and gently easing himself into a long night of entertainment, the Belfast crowd is drawn in like a magnet, transfixed on Tommy centerstage.

 Renowned for his extraordinary fingerstyle technique and unparalleled guitar wizardry, Emmanuel proves once again why he stands as one of the foremost acoustic guitarists of our time.

The Ulster Hall, with its rich history and grandeur, provided the perfect backdrop for an evening that would go down in the annals of Belfast’s musical legacy. The anticipation in the air was palpable as a diverse audience, hailing from all corners of the city, eagerly embraced the virtuoso on the stage.

Two songs in and as the lights dimmed, Emmanuel stepped into the spotlight, his guitar cradled in his hands like a cherished artefact. From the first notes, a hush fell over the sold-out crowd as they were transported into the magical realm of Emmanuel’s musical prowess. His fingers danced effortlessly across the strings, weaving intricate melodies that resonated through the hall with a clarity that captured the audience’s collective breath.

The sheer versatility of Emmanuel’s repertoire was on full display, ranging from soulful ballads to energetic instrumentals that showcased his mastery of the acoustic guitar. His ability to evoke a myriad of emotions through the strings left the audience on a journey that transcended the limitations of words.

Emmanuel’s stage presence was equally captivating. With each pluck of the strings, he communicated a passion for his craft that transcended mere technical proficiency. The sold-out crowd was not merely witnessing a concert; they were immersed in an intimate dialogue with a virtuoso who spoke the language of music fluently.

The Ulster Hall, typically known for hosting historic events, became a haven for guitar enthusiasts that night. Emmanuel’s guitar wizardry transformed the venue into a sacred space, where every note seemed to echo the rich history embedded in the hall’s walls. Tommy’s showmanship is second to none, the blistering speed of his hands are just a sight to see, his vocals are charming as is the man himself making everyone feel like they are watching from the comforts of their own homes.

The highlight of the night of course is when Mike Joins Tommy on stage to close off a fantastic nights entertainment, the preverbial Satch & Vai of the acoustic world bringing it all home leaving the Belfast audience breathless.

As the final chords resonated through the Ulster Hall, the applause that erupted from the sold-out crowd was deafening. Emmanuel, bathed in the warm glow of the spotlight, acknowledged the fervent applause with a humble nod, the twinkle in his eye reflecting the mutual appreciation between artist and audience. An artist who will always be welcome in this city, from his first gig here at The Errigle Inn to the grandour of The Ulster Hall, Tommy Emmanuel is loved by his Northern Irish audience, the world tour of Ireland continues onto Derry/Londonderry tomrrow night before wrapping up in Dublin on the 2nd.

The echoes of that night lingered in the hearts of those fortunate enough to be present, a testament to the enduring power of live music and the indomitable spirit of a guitar wizard who continues to leave audiences spellbound wherever he goes.

Catch him and Mike while you can.

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Review & Photography: Mark McGrogan

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