By Daniel Koontz
The PORTRAITS series in East Hampton has been having a very successful summer, with an unbroken succession of sold-out events. Each evening features a freewheeling concert, curated by musician and songwriter Taylor Barton and hosted by her husband, Amagansett guitar legend G.E. Smith, presenting internationally famous artists in the intimate setting of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall.
On Tuesday, August 13, at 8 p.m., Smith presents his next PORTRAITS show at Guild Hall with featured artists Australian guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel and Americana musician Amy Helm.
Onstage, Smith draws the artists out in his relaxed, easy way and they play a lot of great music together. The audience gets to hear some one-of-a-kind performances and listen in as the musicians swap stories.
“I want it to be like it’s in our living room,” said Smith about his approach. “We’re just hanging out, talking about music.”
To that end, Smith said he never plans what he’s going to say in advance, never uses a script.
“I know how to talk to musicians — I don’t know how to talk to regular people, but I’m good at talking to musicians,” he laughed.
On August 13 with Tommy Emmanuel, the talk should flow pretty easily, and not just because both Smith and Emmanuel are musicians and talkers. They share a deeper connection.
“Of all the people we’ve had at PORTRAITS, he is the most similar to me,” Smith said. Emmanuel, who grew up in a remote part of Australia — what the Aussies call “the bush” — received his first guitar at age 4. Smith, who grew up in an isolated valley in Pennsylvania, discovered a guitar in his grandmother’s basement, also when he was 4. Both became obsessed with learning the guitar, and, because of their isolation, had to teach themselves entirely by ear. On top of all this, both Emmanuel and Smith began playing professionally before they hit puberty.
Emmanuel confirms the similarity between how he learned guitar and how Smith learned.
“There were no instructional videos,” Emmanuel said — an understatement, considering there was barely television where he grew up.
“I was using music as my inspiration. If I heard a song I liked, I just had to work it out.” In the absence of any visual information, Emmanuel had to go by his ears alone — and even though he was blessed with an exceptional musical ear, he often unwittingly made things harder for himself. Early on, he would learn how to simultaneously play both the guitar and bass guitar parts for songs — which often meant wild stretching and contortion of his left, fretting hand — simply because he didn’t realize that there was such a thing as a bass guitar. He thought it was all being played by one person. Of course, in surmounting the challenge to play both parts, Emmanuel developed unique technical skills that launched him towards the world-class virtuosity he’s known for today.
Not completely out of contact with the outside world, Emmanuel first heard American country guitar great Chet Atkins on the radio when he was 6. Atkins’ intricate finger-style playing was a revelation to the young Emmanuel, and learning how to play like Atkins became the new goal. Once again, Emmanuel had to learn completely by ear — he didn’t even have a still photograph of Atkins playing, much less a video. To aid in trying to figure out Atkins’ more complex harmonies, Emmanuel and his brother Phil (also a guitarist) developed a homemade ear-training curriculum.
“We invented games,” Emmanuel said. “I would play a chord with my back turned, and he would have to tell me what chord I was playing. Then it was his turn.”
Even with all of that preparation, it wasn’t until he saw a picture of Atkins playing that Emmanuel realized that he used a thumb pick to get the right articulation on his bass lines. And it wasn’t until he actually met Atkins, years later, that he learned other, more hidden secrets — like which songs Atkins used a capo on. In the absence of this information, Emmanuel continued to invent his own techniques to achieve the results he heard.
“I would just keep going until I made that sound,” he said.
None of this is too uncommon for guitarists, as Smith points out.
“It’s a pretty easy instrument to teach yourself,” Smith said. “We all figure out our own little variations on how to play.”
Yet seldom do those variations lead to the kind of mind-bending virtuosity that Tommy Emmanuel developed. In 1999, Atkins himself conferred upon Emmanuel the title “Certified Guitar Player,” a high honor.
In contrast to the isolated Emmanuel and Smith, Amy Helm grew up in close proximity to a broad spectrum of musicians, with ample opportunity to see as well as hear them play. The daughter of the late Levon Helm, who was the iconic drummer for The Band, and background singer Libby Titus, Helm bounced around the upper reaches of the music business from birth. She started her own professional career by following in her mother’s footsteps, singing backup for such bands as Steely Dan and Rosanne Cash.
Perhaps the work Helm is best known for, though, is the vocal, instrumental, arranging and production work she did on her father Levon’s celebrated final recordings, “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt.” Helm plays mandolin, piano, drums, percussion and, of course, sings on these award-winning albums that are drenched in Americana. Hers is an intelligent, well-honed style based on a deeply personal connection to the roots of American folk music.
The August 13 PORTRAITS will be a unique experience: Helm, Emmanuel and Smith have never played together before. Smith credited his wife, Barton, with curating this never-before-seen combination.
“This wouldn’t exist without her,” he said. “She gets the acts, books them, gets them to town.”
Then all Smith has to do is talk to them and play. He’s good at that.
G.E. Smith Presents PORTRAITS featuring Tommy Emmanuel and Amy Helm, produced by Taylor Barton. Tuesday, August 13, at 8 p.m. Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Tickets are $55 to $150 ($50 to $145 members) at guildhall.org or 631-324-4050.