Avalon, the first full-length album from guitarists Julian Lage and Chris “Critter” Eldridge (of Punch Brothers) is a vivid snapshot of this duo’s repertoire, circa 2014; a portrait of a burgeoning friendship between two virtuosic players; and, at its heart, a pristinely recorded love letter to the sound of the acoustic guitar. At the urging of fan and friend Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids, who served first as instigator and then as producer of this project, Lage and Eldridge spent two days last April recording live at a small gem of 1920’s theatre, the Avalon in Easton, Maryland, on the picturesque Eastern Shore. The pair culled 11 songs from its set – a mix of originals and covers that illustrate the breadth of the American songbook as Lage and Eldridge see it, incorporating bluegrass, country, gospel, old-time music and jazz. There was no playback, no overdubs, just the duo’s eloquent, in-the-moment musical repartee, all filtered through Pattengale’s discerning ear.
The prodigious Lage has, literally since childhood, been highly regarded in jazz and new music circles for his own work as well as for his collaborations with such artists as Gary Burton, Nels Cline, Fred Hersch, and Jim Hall, among many others. Eldridge is equally noted in the progressive bluegrass world for his stints with the Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters, which led to his joining Chris Thile’s adventurous, Grammy-nominated quintet, Punch Brothers. It was backstage after a Boston Punch Brothers gig that Eldridge met Lage, who’d come at the urging of Béla Fleck to meet with Chris Thile about a recording date. Among Lage’s most vivid memories of the evening was meeting Eldridge: “I had my guitar and he had his and I said, ‘Hey, you want to play something?’ It was little bit of love at first sight. I thought, this guy gets it. This guy has the same reverence for the acoustic guitar that I have and has such a perfect touch. It’s not overly muscular, it’s very elegant, very curious, it was just beautiful. And I was really moved.”
Eldridge returns the compliment: “I hadn’t heard him play before so those first couple of tunes were pretty mind-boggling. There was an instant friendship, both musically and personally. Though he is a few years younger than me, Julian is someone I really look up to. He represents everything I love about guitar playing and a lot of what I love about music. He’s a total guitar genius, really, but what’s more impressive is the tremendous humanity that Julian is working with. He uses these superhuman powers at the service of connection, of connecting on some kind of great human level. You can probably hear that in his playing. I know you can feel it playing music with him. “
After three years of texting, talking and jamming, the New York City-based pair decided to venture on stage together, with a gig at the small Brooklyn club, Barbès. But their duo project didn’t take off in earnest until they self-released a four-song EP, Close To Picture, in 2013. They were venturing into uncharted territory, beyond genre, reaching for a language of their own through the on-the-spot interplay of their guitars. Says Eldridge, “The whole point was to explore sounds and textures that are uniquely possible on a flat-top steel-string guitar. Traditionally, these old Martin guitars, which are some of the most incredible instruments in the world, have been used for accompanying folk, bluegrass and country songs. There hasn’t been a lot of exploration of what they’re uniquely capable of, their particular rich tonal palate, what they have to offer to the world that other instruments don’t. That was the organizing principle when we were working on tunes a year and a half ago.”
The EP, Lage elaborates, “was kind of a grand experiment. Then Critter started singing more songs and we developed this show, all pretty accidentally, a ninety-minute survey of American acoustic music. It could be a Jimmie Rodgers tune, it could be a more esoteric instrumental original, or it could be a Seldom Scene bluegrass tune. But there’s a common thread. They all sound like us when we play them, and it’s pretty cool.”
Avalon indeed features songs by Jimmie Rodgers (“Any Old Time”), bluegrass legend Norman Blake (“Ginseng Sullivan”), Paul Craft (“Keep Me From Blowing Away,” originally recorded by the Seldom Scene), and George and Ira Gershwin (a lovely version of “Someone To Watch Over Me,” with a gentle, almost Chet Baker-like vocal from Eldridge). Lage also contributes three originals – “Wilson’s Waltz,” “Steady Proof” and “Stone Cross” that echo the approach of the earlier EP. Pattengale heard Lage and Eldridge perform at the 2014 edition of the Winter Grass Festival, held every February in Tacoma, Washington, and came to all four of their sets, entranced by the sound of their vintage Martin guitars. (Lage plays a 1939 000-18: Eldridge a 1937 D-18). As Lage recalls, “He was really excited. He said, you could just set up a microphone and do what you just did on stage.”
“All of a sudden we had a really enthusiastic cheerleader and guy with an idea in Kenneth,” continues Eldridge, “and we just followed it because we love Kenneth and trust him. And that’s how the whole thing happened. He said, ‘I know of this place, it sounds good, let me call and see if it’s going to be available.’ Kenneth, in addition to his considerable musical gifts, is just a badass at getting things done. So the next day, he calls us back: ‘We got it, the Avalon theatre. Here are the dates.”
The pair had just enough time between gigs to fit in the Avalon recording, says Eldridge: “It was really amazing that we did it. Julian and I had played a gig in Baltimore the night before. We drove over the next morning and when we got there, all the mics were already set up on stage, in the balcony, and in the room. Everything was ready to go. From the time we walked in the front door to when we recorded the first song was about five minutes. “
“Critter and I only had two days before having to return to our other lives so it was kind of Kismet,” decides Lage. “We proceeded to play down our set, maybe a couple of takes of each song, maybe five or six hours. There were no headphones, no playback; it was really old-fashioned. We just trusted Kenneth’s ears. If he said it was good, we moved on. After dinner we listened to all the tracks and decided we wanted to redo a few of them. So the next day we went back, we had three or four hours, we redid those and essentially that was the record. Very much done as documentation, no edits really.”
In his liner notes, says Pattengale, “the two disparate worlds of these two singular musicians push and pull at one another to create true harmony.” The result is an album that rewards the time it takes to listen all the way through, to this moment captured, this dialogue preserved, in which familiar songs become new again in the hands of these supremely gifted, intuitive players. All you have to do is trust your ears.