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.
Rather than indulging each other’s unlimited technical facility and going down esoteric rabbit holes that alienate the audience, the duo invites the audience into their musical conversation, keeping things accessible but interesting. They are present in the moment and receive what they play, which encourages the listeners to do the same.
It’s almost like listening to a podcast of two great storytellers or investigators tackle different topics. On some level, that’s what their second full album, Mount Royal, is all about: two friends acting as researchers of what emotional and textural space two acoustic guitars can occupy.
Their investigative tools on the album – Critter’s 1937 Martin D-18 and Julian’s 1939 Martin 000-18 – are an exquisite pair of mahogany-bodied guitars built by the legendary company during its golden era. Having different body styles but identical tonewoods allows the sounds of the two guitars to “melt into” each other, as Eldridge puts it.
On tour, however, they brought somewhat less precious instruments: a 1954 Martin D-28 that Critter dubs “Uncle Johnny” and a custom Collings model (not yet available to the public) with a thin, satin finish found on the company’s Waterloo models and specs similar to Lage’s vintage 000-18. The blend is no less compelling than what you hear on the record.
The territory they cover together tips its hat to some genre conventions without being bound by any. Critter grew up around his father’s bluegrass band, The Seldom Scene, before lending his flatpicking talents to The Infamous Stringdusters and, more recently, Punch Brothers. He’s also part of the house band for A Prairie Home Companion on NPR, in which Lage frequently makes guest appearances.
Eldridge’s right-hand technique may have been forged during countless bluegrass jams, but his mindfulness and sense of musical curiosity dissolve any residual orthodoxy they may have imparted.
That curiosity and sense of adventure make him a perfect partner for Lage. From his beginnings as a child prodigy to the mentorship he’s received playing with the likes of Dave Grisman, Gary Burton, Eric Harland and Jim Hall, Julian’s musical vocabulary has developed into its own authentic dialect – not beholden to any tradition, but still undeniably American.
To understand exactly what that means, listen to his 2009 debut Sounding Point. Then listen to his 2015 solo acoustic masterpiece World’s Fair. Then listen to his 2016 trio effort Arclight and its jaw-dropping companion, Live in Los Angeles. Reflect on the line-of-best-fit through those albums, and you’ll form an idea of what Jules draws from as a musician.
Perhaps the strongest gravity between Lage and Eldridge comes from the fact that they are both dedicated students of the guitar as an instrument. As proficient and accomplished as both of them are, they both still talk about the instrument with a sense of wonder and humility.
Some virtuosos tend to make other players feel inferior and discouraged. With Jules and Critter, it’s just the opposite. They remind us all how fun it is to make music and that, no matter how long you've been playing, the learning never stops.
Click here to check out more of their latest release, Mount Royal, and check remaining tour dates through April.