Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Julian Lage and Trio Debut His Latest Album "Modern Lore" at East Atlanta's The Earl

Julian Lage's Modern Lore Mack Avenue Records MAC 1131
On Tuesday March 1, 2018 at an East Atlanta club called The Earl, the guitarist Julian Lage brought his touring band of Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums in support of his latest release Modern Lore which was released on Mack Avenue Records on February 2, 2018.

The Earl has a neighborhood-like bar front room and a rear room that can reportedly accommodate up to two hundred and fifty standing patrons. It has a distinctively punk, rock and roll, maybe even shit-kicking country vibe. Lage apparently played there previously and liked the vibe so he returns this time with his trio.

Lage has made his reputation as a serious crossover guitarist who can play comfortably in many genres. From his work with progressive guitarists like Nels Cline of Wilco fame-they did an interesting album titled Room from 2013- or his contemporary folk/bluegrass music with singer/guitarist Chris Eldridge of the band Punch Brothers; or his jazz duo work with the pianist Fred Hersch; or his more “out” work with the avant-gardist John Zorn;  or his own lyrical guitar work on albums like Gladwell, World’s Fair and Arclight. He has found a niche in a zone that straddles country, folk, rock, jazz, bluegrass and American roots music all mixed up in his own neo-classical style. He joins a pantheon of artists that have followed similar paths, artists like Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Alison Krauss, Chris Thile and perhaps more closely, fellow guitarists Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. Like these other great musicians, he has prodigious technique and an inherent lyricism.

I introduced myself to the guitarist backstage before the show and he was extremely warm and engaging without a hint of pretension or self-importance. That’s quite impressive for a musician who has been lauded from an early age as a wunderkind.  At eight years old he was the subject of an Oscar nominated documentary Jules at Eight. By the age of nine he was playing live on stage with the likes of Carlos Santana trading licks on the acid rock “Maggot Brain.”  He was introduced to the world on record in 1999 at the age of eleven in a duo with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman on the song “Old Souls.”

The humble, now seasoned, thirty-year-old guitarist has always found inspiration from many different sources. On Modern Lore he seems to be mining his rock and country roots, lacing it with his filigreed guitar work and occasionally a smidgen of folksy twang to produce a very enjoyable suite of music.

On the band’s opener, which I believe was “Activate” from his album Arclight, Lage struck a distinctively rock posture on his Telecaster that warmed up the mostly twenty-something crowd. On the second selection, “Atlantic Limited,” Jorge Roeder led off the sauntering tune with his loping bass line (played on the album by Scott Colley). Lage’s guitar turned to a fractious power chord opening for “Roger the Dodger.” Lage’s ability to weave complex lines and to dazzle the audience with his fretboard facility was fully on display. He is an ebullient player, bouncing on the toes of his feet, raising his head skyward while he is playing in blissful community with his bandmates. You can just feel the energy surging through this guy’s body when he is playing. Doob, who replaces veteran drummer Kenny Wollesen from the album, was especially powerful with his roiling drum work as Lage and Roeder powered on.

Julian Lage
After a brief announcement naming the members of his group, Lage and company took off on the frenetic “Persian Rug,” a country cooker that is credited to Charlie Daniels and Gus Kahn and that Lage first recorded on his 2016 album Arclight. The amazing facility that this man has was quite impressive to see in person as his fingers flew across the fretboard like fluttering fireflies. The audience stood in awe and respect and gave the band a rousing ovation.

The next selection was the roots- based, Spike Hughes tune “Nocturne” also from Lage’s fine Arclight. Lage and group proved that they could work the dynamics of a song to perfection, building crescendos of sound to erupting apexes before abruptly changing direction with a purposeful time change or a hushed interlude.

The Julian Lage Trio w Jorge Roeder (b) and Eric Doob (dr)
Lage went right into an extended version of his wistful composition “40’s” from his solo album World’s Fair released in 2015. The song featured a powerful and lengthy probing bass solo by Roeder and an exploratory solo by Lage that went way outside the box before returning to the main theme of the song.  Toward the end of the song the three musicians created a mélange of free improvisations that somehow worked, tying it all together with an explosive Doob solo at the coda.

The group continued with “Splendor Riot” from the new album. Lage’s ability to play repeated lines in rapid succession flawlessly and his penchant for rapidly and repeatedly sliding into and out of notes is emblematic of his individualistic style. He played what appeared to be an old Fender Telecaster exclusively for this gig and his tone was often set in treble mode producing a fair amount of twang that he used to great effect.

“Whatever You Say, Henry,” again from the new album, featured Jorge Roeder on his acoustic bass, bending and plucking notes pizzicato as Lage strummed chords softly behind and a stick-less Doob used his bare hands to create a soft back beat. When Lage did take a solo, it had a country music feel until he started to play some quick lines that were from another world. At one point he strummed his guitar much like a banjo creating an unusual effect.

The evening continued with the experimental free sounding “Earth Science,” also from the new album. The three musicians trading ideas in a seemingly unbridled exchange of on the spot improvisational stream of consciousness.

After a lengthy abstract solo by Lage, he changed the mood entirely by introducing the familiar lyrical sounds of Sammy Fain’s classic “I’ll Be Seeing You.”  If there was any thought that Lage has left his jazz guitar tradition behind, then this left the purists satiated. It’s quite moving to listen to this master take a familiar song like this and embellish it in his own inimitable way. The only negative, Doob’s drums could have been a bit more sedate for my liking.

The finale was the lead off song from the new album and is titled “The Ramble.”

It was a near capacity crowd of approximately two hundred people, mostly young and receptive to Lage’s unique, genre-less style, a pastiche of multiple influences that somehow just works.  He is an engaging artist of immense talent and one who seems to be able to expand the audience for those who are curious and open minded about contemporary extemporaneously improvised music. He is an artist we all should continue to watch closely.

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