I wait outside the Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland. It's a building that belies its former splendor as an opulent early-century art deco movie house but –now restored and maintained by a community non-profit– today remains the thread to Easton's artistic community. The two-story wooden hall amplifies and reverberates acoustic instruments subtly and naturally. The leisurely pace of spring on the Chesapeake provides an encouraging context for the work ahead.
Shortly, Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge will arrive with the intention of recording eleven songs on the venerable stage of the Avalon. They've spent the better part of a month criss-crossing America in a rented sedan playing nightly in the bars, theaters, coffee shops, jazz clubs, art galleries, performing arts centers, and living rooms that serve as a contemporary stage for the working musician of 2014.
Across the checkered landscape of American music there has always existed a common thread–a mélange of divergent influence and interpretation, tradition and invention–that accounts for our history's collective musical communities to have made a claim on uniqueness. As surely as American jazz made purchase over its varied musical tributaries, so too did Old-time music and the high lonesome sound of Bluegrass. While the regional signposts and boundaries of musical influence in 2014 appear all but vanished, we continue to create our musical communities and redefine our musical identities through contemporary experience–through language and community; through reflection and innovation–all through live performance.
Despite their young ages, Lage and Eldridge (27 and 32, respectively) are two of our best living guitarists. They each stand to represent the pinnacles of their field–straddling an apex that roots musical innovation in the awareness of its own history. Through Lage you can trace equal parts of Blind Blake and Django Reinhardt to Hubert Sumlin, Jim Hall, Bill Frisell and beyond. Eldridge finds the thread among Doc Watson, Norman Blake and Tony Rice straight on through Bryan Sutton and David Rawlings.
I've been tasked with the role of producer in this whole affair. And while generally intimidated by such formal modes of responsibility, I found it important to answer the call and preside closely over the aural photographing of this musical identity the two have forged from a singularly American hodgepodge of musical influence and material.
The material cuts a wide swath as it traces the earliest origins of American roots music on through Lage's own contemporary compositions. The American negro spiritual (Open Up The Window, Noah–its arrangement here informed by Phil Rosenthal) is represented alongside that of the Old-time fiddle tunes (Whiskey Before Breakfast) providing a context to further codified and commercialized examples of jazz music and country music in the 1920s (George and Ira Gershwin's Someone To Watch Over Me and Jimmie Rodgers' Any Old Time.) The Old-time lineage is traced through a later representation of Appalachian music and the country ballad in the 1970s (Norman Blake's Ginseng Sullivan, John Starling's Mean Mother Blues, and Paul Craft's Keep Me From Blowing Away.) Elements from this rich history inform the three original instrumentals penned by Lage (Stone Cross, Wilson's Waltz, and Steady Proof) and another written with New York's Margaret Glaspy (Butter and Eggs.)
Armed with only their vintage Martin guitars (Lage a 1939 000-18, and Eldridge a 1937 D-18) and I with microphones (Ear Trumpet Labs Edwinas, 1st rev Oktava MC012s and Earthworks QTC30s through True Precision 8 mic preamps and Lynx Aurora converters) we set out to create a document. And from the five hours on Sunday afternoon and four hours on Monday morning spent filling the Avalon Theatre with sound waves the old-fashioned way, what has emerged is a genuine musical artifact. This recording –like all of the recorded music before and after it– represents a snapshot in time. No more nor less is intended. What's recorded here is in real time. What's recorded here is necessarily raw.
Through Eldridge's plaintive, sincere tenor I hear the voice of Gershwin and of Rodgers color the night air. The thoughtfully blurred –and heavily improvised– musings of the acoustic guitar guide me through a history of melody in American music–borrowing equally from the material that informs it while creating a sound I can't recall having heard before. Gently, the two disparate worlds of these two singular musicians push and pull at one another to create true harmony. It's in this musical comity that I discover again what is music. A tribute to the ephemeral nature of artistry. A reminder that we are everything that has come before us but, still, desperately need to forge our own path ahead.
20 August 2014