Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Tuesday, October 22

I knew that Tuesday night’s performance by Chris Eldridge and Julian Lage would be good. The duo self-released a masterful EP last summer, Close to Picture, and finally followed it up with a full-length, Avalon, on October 7. What happened on stage at the Carolina Theatre in front of a crowd of maybe 75 people blew all of my album-based expectations out of the water.

It’s difficult to pick out individual highlights of the show. There was “Amelia,” a sweet song written for them by Margaret Glaspy, as well as a pair of Paul Craft covers that included a cheeky and charming rendition of “Through the Bottom of the Glass.” There were the duo’s bread-and-butter songs, what Eldridge called their “acoustic guitar art songs” such as “Boca Grande,” “At the Meeting House” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” And though the set featured several covers, the Lage-Eldridge takes on them were always interesting and engaging. Eldridge seemed comfortable on vocals, handling unexpected tunes such as Sam Cooke’s soulful “I’ll Come Running Back To You” and jazz standard “Someone To Watch Over Me” gracefully.

It’s remarkable what Lage and Eldridge manage to accomplish with two instruments that seem as simple as acoustic guitars. In their hands, it’s like these instruments transform. Both men are gifted players, complementing each other with their backgrounds in bluegrass and jazz. But their music transcends these labels, creating a timeless sound that takes your breath away. Lage was angled away from me, but I could see he and Eldridge intensely studying each other’s picking, nimbly weaving together their skills into decadent music. The pair also played unamplified, with every note clear and ringing in the silent darkness. While the Carolina Theatre felt too big for the duo and the small crowd, there’s almost no way those songs could have sounded that crisp and beautiful anywhere else.

All too soon, it was over. The pair played for an hour and a half, closing with a scorching and fun version of “Mean Mother Blues” before returning to the stage with a weird composition that yielded to “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” I haven’t spent enough time with Avalon to say with confidence that the “Whiskey Before Breakfast” prelude was a completely improvised piece, but whatever it was, it was riveting. Everything leading up to it had been pleasing, palatable and easily accessible to everyone, but that first section of the encore veered into more experimental territory. It felt like a peek into the deeper, even richer rabbit hole that Lage and Eldridge could go down, something I hope they continue to explore in future recordings and performances.