September, 1997. I was a small-time musician, based in outback Queensland. I’d booked a local gig, 400 kilometers north in the town of Hughenden, population 1,000.
The bartender shouted my first beer. ‘You’d better be fuckin’ good mate. Phil Emmanuel was here last week!’
This was not great news. Phil Emmanuel was no slouch. Put another way, he was exceptional, having shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Santana, Dire Straits (if somewhat overshadowed by his younger brother, Tommy Emmanuel, widely recognised as one of the world’s greatest living guitarists)… and I was a certified nobody.
Okay, so I had to follow up a guy who was as comfortable in a country town hall as he was tearing it up at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics… yet somehow, this wasn’t the bad part.
I had another beer, then began setting up my little PA system in the corner. There was barely a sound in the bar, aside from a small wall-mounted television. Locals sat, watching the TV, drinking in silence or murmuring quietly. Some were crying.
Not good. Not good. I had another beer. I had no idea what to do… how to start. The manager told me to take my time. Elton John appeared on the TV, and I decided to quietly join in from my spot in the corner, raising the volume a decibel at a time until a few dozen somber patrons noticed. A nearby group gestured quietly that it was a respectful start. The manager gave me a nod and turned off the TV.
I guess I was lucky, in the sense that no comparisons were made that night, between myself and Phil Emmanuel. I don’t actually remember anything of the gig itself after Elton John, but I’ll never forget the time I had to go on after Princess Diana’s funeral.
Timing is everything.