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`Only' light, jazzy blue grass

I don't profess to be a fan of adult-contemporary instrumental music, so it's hard to not grin and think about shopping at Borders when I listen to Only, the most recent release from Australian guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel.

Although I don't know much about it beyond the standards, I like bluegrass. And I've always appreciated the blues. And as a woefully unaccomplished campfire guitarist of nearly 10 years, I can appreciate the skills necessary to create music like this.

While some of it rings of cheese - newsroom comparisons have hit on late '80s acoustic ballads by the likes of Eric Clapton and even, ouch, Xtreme; it's really not that bad. In fact, the bluegrass elements are pretty amazing - Emmanuel's fingers literally dance up and down the fretboard.

Promotional materials cite blues as a big influence, though that's a bit of a stretch for me. You'll find hints of it here and there, notably on the track "Ol' Brother Hubbard" - the scat for which constitutes the sole vocal component of the album. But most of Only is very light and airy, with an uplifting jazzy feel - far from the bayou dirges of Son House.

The 14 tracks are titled, and at moments a vocal track almost seems to be replaced by lilting guitar - a la Frontier muzak. Listening to an instrumental album is tricky - there are, of course, names for the tracks, like "Those Who Wait," "Biskie," "Since We Met" and "Train to Dusseldorf." But the listener can only begin to guess what each really means. Call me simple, but I guess I'm comforted by a more literal interpretation of a song called "Mombasa" than the candle-shopping accompaniment that I get from track three.

But the amazing thing about this album is the way a listener gets the feeling this is as easy for Emmanuel as talking or breathing. He recorded the album in just two days.

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"Only has come from my travels and the desire to produce something new, something which reflects me and something personal," Emmanuel said in a recent Country Update article.

But there's a huge scene surrounding solo acoustic performers. The Web has more "official" sites for Emmanuel than for Britney Spears, and people can't seem to get enough of him and his compatriots such as Stephen Bennet, the late Michael Hedges and legendary fingerpicker Chet Atkins - who called Emmanuel "one of the greatest guitarists on the planet."

Since beginning his career with a band with his three siblings in 1960, Emmanuel has released nine studio and live albums over his four-decade career, four of which have gone platinum. He has collaborated with Stevie Wonder, Clapton, Michael Bolton, Olivia Newton-John and Bill Wyman, among others, and has become a household name in Australia, where he was born. He appeared in the closing ceremonies during the Olympic Games in Sydney, last year's Winfield Guitar Festival in Kansas and The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

The Grammy-nominated guitarist will make a stop at the KiMo Theater, 419 Central Ave. NW, on Saturday. Emmanuel is known for his energetic performances and witty interaction with audiences. He will be joined by Bennet, an equally noteworthy harp guitarist. Yes, that's a harp and a guitar combined as one instrument.

Only, which was released in May 2000, is only available as an import at record stores and online.

Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 and are available at the KiMo box office, 784-1700, and from Ticketmaster, 883-7800.


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