Julian Lage, Chris Eldridge, and Aoife O’Donovan: New Wave Americana

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There was a calming sense of relief as I entered PC Ballroom East. The usual crowd was in attendance: a collection of ArtPower sponsors, musically diverse students, and, of course, the fantastic Art Power staff. Aptly put by one of the performers, Aoife O’Donovan, “This is an NPR kinda crowd.”

As I took my seat, I began to wonder exactly what I would be listening to that night. I was familiar with the jazz stylings that Julian Lage embodies in his music. I’ve listened to a few Americana folk-style songs that Aoife O’Donovan beautifully sings, but I have never been a fan of bluegrass nor taken the time to listen to what it really sounds like. Chris Eldridge was a mystery to me. But there I was, pushing my envelope of comfort yet again.

Julian Lage is a prominent figure in steel string guitar jazz and new music circles. He has worked with people such as Gary Burton, Nels Cline, Fred Hersch and Jim Hall, and has consistently been described as someone who tests the limits of new music guitar.

Chris Eldridge has an equally impressive reputation among bluegrass and folk circles, mostly mixing progressive bluegrass tunes with the likes of The Seldom Scene and The Infamous. He has also worked with the Grammy-nominated quintet, Punch Brothers.

The two of these individuals together form a rather interesting sound. The rapid improvisation and syncopated sound of jazz combined with the driving rhythm and backwoods melodies of bluegrass proved to be quite a pleasant surprise.

Aoife O’Donovan is a folk singer with a honeyed voice and bass-heavy guitar backing. Her most notable work was that on the Grammy-winning album The Goat Rodeo Sessions, working with prominent artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Her newly released album In the Magic Hour was written in the wake of her grandfather’s death, and it played a heavy hand in creating the album’s sound.

O’Donovan came onstage first and her performance consisted of selections from her new album. One of the songs that really stood out was “In the Magic Hour,” also the title of the album. The song was low and almost solemn in the beginning. Signature to O’Donovan’s style, the guitar was low, with the baritone being used as a back-up for her high, melodic voice. She sang, “Death is a lonely bride,” defining the atmosphere of the song and giving it that Midwest American feel. As if the room was reading my mind, the lights began to glow gold. They imitated the sun shining through the tall grass wavering in the wind, all constructed by the melody of O’Donovan’s song.

Once O’Donovan had finished her solo set, she was joined by Lage and Eldridge as the trio covered Joanna Newsom’s “Good Intentions Paving Company”. The song was originally created for a harp, but it would be an understatement to say the trio served the original song justice. The three voices of each artist were distinct, yet harmoniously intertwined, creating the sense of nostalgia expressed through the song’s lyrics. O’Donovan’s singing blended in melody with Eldridge, and Lage carefully wrapped the sounds of all three of the artists together through the gentle strumming of his guitar.

As I mentioned earlier, I had no idea how Chris Eldridge would sound, but I had the chance to hear his style with his song “Things in Life”. Eldridge’s vocals started low, almost to the floor in pitch, and rose to a loudness paralleled by the constant flight of fighter jets that pass over UCSD in the daytime. According to Lage, this was a “real bluegrass song,”and it was surprisingly emotional.

It was not a solo performance, however, and Lage quickly accompanied Eldridge on his guitar. Lage played rapidly, his fingers flying up and down the neck of the guitar in a chromatic fashion. He was making up each consecutive solo on the fly and implementing the off-key notes often found in black-key jazz. Eldridge, on the other hand, was collected and loud. Eldridge’s constant, rhythmic strumming was rounded out by his raised voice and lower pitch.

It was the final night of the trio’s “Release the Hounds” tour and the mood was rather celebratory. The room was filled with cheers of joy and laughter as they returned for an encore. All three artists were present onstage as they performed a song called “Apple Tree,” written by Lage.

The song moved forward slowly, accentuated by the strumming of different chords and the addition of gentle arpeggios. O’Donovan sang beautifully, harmonizing with Eldridge as he slowly built each sustain in the bars that followed. Once again, the unlikely duo hammered out contrasting solos that breathed life into the song. A blast of emotion released the three of them into the night as Lage strummed furiously, letting loose a flurry of chords in caustic succession before a concluding strum. It was in these final moments that the concert came to a head, providing closure not only to the night’s performance but to the tour as well. In a sense, the “Hounds” had been released.

Saunil Dobariya is a Staff writer for the Arts and Entertainment section for The Triton.