Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge at Norton Center for the Arts in Danville: The bill of fare was dubbed by its artists as a set of “acoustic guitar art songs.” What that was transformed into during a powerfully conversational duo performance at the Norton Center’s Weisiger Theatre was a meeting ground for the jazz dexterity of Lage, the bluegrass abandon of Eldridge and the wealth of fertile stylistic ground that sat between them.
Although deceptively simple and lean in design, with the two guitarists playing without amplification, save for a lone microphone, the 80-minute program was beautifully restless in execution.
Light melodies with shades of folk and pre-bluegrass country would open a tune with summery grace before darting off to break the sound barrier. In other instances, a more jazz-like sensibility would inject itself with playful spontaneity, adding to the show’s intuitive feel. Such occurrences were commonplace, altering the temperament of the music as regularly and readily as the tempo.
The initial setting for Mount Royal, for instance, was pure Americana: a terrain of swiftly performed melodic lines by Eldridge, full of folkish charm. But when Lage took the reins, the song seemed to elongate with a slower, more open lyricism. The moods passed back and forth before splintering into short shards of percussive dissonance.
A similar stylistic joyride was at the heart of At the Meeting House, an older composition from the duo’s 2013 EP disc Close to Picture that employed a kind of Americana fusion — one similar to the jazz/bluegrass hybrid playing of Tony Rice, but with a far more congenial feel — highlighting the guitarists’ stylistic differences and the obvious dialogue that grew out of the resulting music.
Eldridge, who has performed in Kentucky several times over the past decade as a member of the new-generation string band Punch Brothers, also revealed himself as a capable singer, with a voice as light, unspoiled and adaptable as his playing, whether it was with a quietly sentimental reading of the Gershwin staple Someone to Watch Over Me, a spry stab at the gospel nugget Open Up the Window, Noah or a leisurely update of Jimmie Rodgers’ Any Old Time that sounded less like the country classicist and more like the wry folk reflection of Loudon Wainwright III.