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“Playing with Jules, it feels like anything is possible,” says Chris Eldridge. “You have no constraints. There’s just so much room to move around. It’s like playing in a sandbox, which really opens you up to being more creative.” Adds Julian Lage: “Our rapport is based on the idea that we’re researchers studying this idea of what two acoustic guitars can do together, how you can integrate that into instrumental songwriting and how you can reconcile that with vocal music. Our collaboration is like a big research project that’s been going on for years.”
Lage is a renowned jazz guitarist who has collaborated with a range of musicians—Nels Cline, Gary Burton, and Fred Hersch, to name a few. According to the New Yorker, he belongs “in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them.” Eldridge is a veteran of the bluegrass world, cutting his teeth in the legendary outfits the Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters before anchoring Punch Brothers, an acoustic supergroup that combines folk instrumentation with pop and experimental songcraft. When they play together, however, they do not represent the genres or styles with which they have long been identified. “It’s not the United Nations,” laughs Lage. “It’s not like I’m the jazz representative and he’s the bluegrass representative. We could care less about that.” Instead, they make music simply as friends and individuals who happen to have unique ideas and techniques.
After meeting and jamming backstage at a Punch Brothers show, the two became fast friends and eventually started playing shows together. Their chemistry was undeniable, each pulling the other out of his comfort zone. In 2013, they released an extended play (EP) recording of original songs, followed quickly by their debut album, Avalon, which was modeled after their live shows. “It’s a sophisticated guitar LP that doesn’t sound sophisticated,” Pitchfork magazine gushed, “an effort that folds its intense erudition deep beneath its lovely surface.”
In Mount Royal, their second album together, Lage and Eldridge craft songs that sound familiar but are never easily classified. Percolating with tinges of bluegrass and folk, insinuations of jazz and pop, hints of classical and avant-garde composition, the album rarely settles into any one particular category; rather, it dances around the territory between genres, never announcing its innovations and prizing soulfulness above chops at every turn. From first note to last, the duo push themselves to find new ways to play their flat-top steel-string acoustic Martins together.
Julian Lage and Chris ‘Critter’ Eldridge seem to achieve that nirvana all musicians seek when playing together—having fun, listening to each other with poise, and responding to the moment while still locked into an implicit unifying pulse.
It is being brought to life in actual time—the performance is not simply a virtuoso recreation of the past.