Free Dirt Records

On their first duo CD Avalon, guitar masters Chris “Critter” Eldridge and Julian Lage forged a focused partnership that veered far beyond the conventional boundaries associated with two acoustic guitars and one vocalist. Recorded live in acoustic splendor by Kenneth Pattengale (Milk Carton Kids), it rapidly became one of the favorite guitar CDs amongst bluegrass and new acoustic guitar fans.

Back for a much-deserved encore, the musicians here explore even more improvisational styles and diverse harmonic fields. Eldridge, son of Seldom Scene banjo legend Ben Eldridge and a founding member of Punch Brothers, has the most bluegrass background here. A student of flatpicking legend Tony Rice, Critter often sets the more traditional tone here.

Lage, renowned as a jazz guitar prodigy starting at age eight, often carries the music to higher levels of experimental flight. But he’s also proven to be that rarest of beasts, a jazz player who truly gets bluegrass and folk and can integrate his advanced knowledge of music theory and harmony convincingly into a traditional sound. Listen to him play a classic bluegrass guitar line on “Greener Grass,” only to be matched in harmony by Eldridge on his big-bottomed 1937 D-18. “Broadcast” highlights the clear-toned, highly expressive playing both guitarists bring to this sublime project. Lage, generating lush chords and delicate Irish lilts on his 1939 000-18, fills the right channel with just the right touch of traditional guitar. Critter lays down a wonderful foundation with just enough melodic invention to keep the tune moving forward.

Traditional guitar fans will love “Old Grimes,” where both guitarists work to establish a complex, yet supportive, melodic arrangement on a traditional tune that could easily become a modern picking session standard. Special credit goes to producer Gabe Witcher and engineer Lynne Earls for capturing the glorious sound of these two vintage Martin flattops so beautifully. This is a record where reverence to the guitar tone comes first and foremost, much to the delight of listeners who love the resonance and vitality of guitars made during C.F. Martin’s golden era.

Vocally, this CD is a big step forward, as Eldridge’s dry, quavering voice worked beautifully on traditional tunes such as “Church Street Blues.”  Here, he excels on their rendition of Don Stover’s immortal “Things In Life” and ably performs John Hartford’s “Mississippi Valley” and the out-of-leftfield selection of rockstar Eddie Vedder’s “Sleeping By Myself.”

The collaboration of Eldridge and Lage is one of a number of modern duo projects that recapture the glory of similar projects like the classic Blake and Rice CDs or David Grier and Mike Compton’s undying Climbing The Walls. Showing an exciting new direction in bluegrass and new acoustic guitar, this duo will excite any listener who appreciates flatpicked guitar at its finest. (Free Dirt Records, P.O. Box 11451, Takoma Park, MD 20913, www.freedirt.net.)DJM

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