This Wednesday, the guitarist Julian Lage played an intimate parlor show at the Hotel Rex in San Francisco, indulging an audience of some fifty music lovers with a median age of about 65 (I was an outlier). He played a varied and delightful set, his selections almost entirely curated from his recent solo album, “World’s Fair.”
When I first applied to write for the Daily last winter, I submitted a supplementary review of “World’s Fair,” which, at the time, was still a few weeks from release (an edited version of this review was later published here). I thought I was pretty slick, using an advance copy of a hip album to give my application the polish of someone well-connected and seriously in tune with the music world. That was deliberate misrepresentation on my part, but I got the job.
Despite my shortcomings, I’m fortunate enough to be well-connected to Julian, who taught me at the Stanford Jazz Institute for a week in 2013 and kindly gifted me the early press of “World’s Fair” after one of his shows in January. For the sake of what little professionalism I can claim, I feel I should acknowledge my incredible admiration for this man and his music, and perhaps mention that anyone close to me will know that these words alone are a gross understatement.
Now, on to the show. As soon as the audience was seated, Lage took the stage and was introduced by Christine Lim of SF Performances, the evening’s host organization. Holding a 1939 Martin 000-18 acoustic guitar in one hand and pouring a pile of variegated picks to the ground with the other, Lage settled into the lone seat at the front of the room, perched on an empty stage without sound equipment or spotlights. The show was to be truly unplugged.
Lage began with a wordless cover of Randy Newman’s love song, “Marie,” maneuvering between playful dissonance and a tender melody, a surreal number of ideas rising simultaneously from his six strings. The next song, “Gardens,” demonstrated his aptitude for songwriting, technique and performance. These skills, demonstrated already on his first two pieces, are his bread and butter. They make for a captivating brand of solo guitar that is both technically challenging and deeply intimate, at once both jaw-droppingly difficult and beautiful.
Across a diverse but short set, Lage fit in covers of the beloved folk song “Freight Train,” the romantic jazz standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and the old-style bluegrass tune “Red Prairie Dawn,” as well as the “World’s Fair” originals “Japan,” “Day and Age” and “40’s.”
In a brief post-concert discussion, Lage offered glimpses at both his creative process and how he responds to the dynamics of live performance. From his comments, it’s clear that he revels in the freedom of the solo act. Rather than relax into the familiarity of his compositions during performances, he chooses to explore daring improvisations and often rearranges songs on the spot. He noted that his goal is always to “play [himself] into a corner,” to let extemporaneous ideas carry him forward without plans for a beginning, middle or end and simply see how he reacts. The usual result is a masterful exercise in tension and release, as everyone in the room — the artist included — is kept wondering where the music is headed until the final resolution arrives. The punctuation is often so emphatic that you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief.
The modest venue and small audience gave Lage plenty of room to breathe, and he responded enthusiastically. The paucity of stagecraft was a constant reminder that behind all of the music was just he, his picks and his guitar, alone together before the audience. You have to wonder how so much artistry and warmth could come from such a solitary operation. But even without consideration for the bare-bones nature of the show, the music alone, for all its complexity, maintained a simple and irresistible beauty. To me, that suggested that something far greater than meets the eye was at play.
You can purchase “World’s Fair” and find out more about the artist here.
You can contact Benjamin Sorensen at bcsoren ‘at’ stanford.edu.