Comprovisation: Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge Live at The Ark


Guitar maestros Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge gave Ark-goers a show to remember on February 27, deftly weaving a rangy array of influences into a coherent and lively musical conversation.

Equally at ease in the company of jazz greats (Gary Burton, Fred Hersch) and bluegrass luminaries (Béla Fleck, David Grisman), Julian Lage continues to cover new ground while honoring the traditions that have informed his evolution as a musician. Chris “Critter” Eldridge is no slouch either, having cut his teeth on the national stage with The Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters before bringing his nimble and artful guitar work to the inventive, genre-bending Punch Brothers.

While much of the duo’s 2015 effort, Avalon, featured Eldridge’s vocals, their latest, Mount Royal (released last week) carves out more space for the interplay between the voices of their vintage Martin guitars. This heightened focus on instrumental improvisation, evident in concert, was a key driving force behind the songwriting process for the new album, which Lage and Eldridge discussed in greater detail with Pulp last week.

Both Lage and Eldridge are seasoned performers with such command of their instruments that the guitars themselves seem less like objects than natural appendages when the two are at their best, which is most of the time.

They opened the show with two songs from Avalon, followed by a wistful Eddie Vedder cover, which promptly melted into a spirited reel called “Old Grimes.” This sequence gave the audience a good, honest glimpse of the sheer variety of music that lay ahead.

Eldridge grew up thoroughly steeped in bluegrass, and he pulls Lage in that direction but in a way that leaves plenty of room for the echoes of Jim Hall and Django Reinhardt that resonate through much of Lage’s work. Indeed, the way the two guitarists harness so many disparate currents of musical lineage and bring them to a satisfying confluence is at the crux of their appeal and their achievement. Riffs of flamenco, Bach and gypsy jazz mingled with blistering traditional breaks and swampy blues licks. Despite this panoply of styles, the show managed to be more journey than pastiche. This feat hinges on the striking rapport between Eldridge and Lage and the intuitive sense each has of how best to showcase the other’s playing, something most evident on tunes from the new record like "Rygar" and "Lion’s Share."

They often sound like a bigger band than they are, seeming to suggest phantom co-conspirators who aren’t there. If they don’t quite fool the audience about the presence of a drummer, they make a strong case for an unseen bass player in a way that recalls the talent Bobby McFerrin has for teasing out a sketch of bass line convincingly enough that when he abandons it to fill in other parts you continue to hear it in the mix. Also impressive was the dynamic range on display, turning from raucous shredding to a barely but beautifully audible phrase on a dime.

The handful of vocal selections that peppered the show -- all covers or adaptations -- served almost as inverted interludes between the instrumental sections that were the bread and butter of the evening. They also anchored the musicians’ few spoken interactions with the audience, among them a charming yarn by Eldridge about mistaking the lyrics to “Open the Window,” Noah when he was a kid listening to his father play the song with his band, The Seldom Scene. For an encore, the duo offered up a stirring rendition of the Gershwin standard “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which Eldridge delivered in his clear, steady tenor.

After the show, the musicians made their way to the merch table to “shake and howdy” with a marveling crowd. This despite the fact that they ran out of copies of Mount Royal the night before. Lage quipped that the duo was counting on the audience bootlegging the show to listen to later, but if last night’s performance was any barometer, they would be wise to bump up the order for the next leg of the tour.

Nicco Pandolfi is a Library Associate with the Ann Arbor District Library.