Gregory Alan Isakov
Words: Sean Moore/ Photos: Kenneth Coles
Gregory Alan Isakov has played almost every major music venue in Portland since he started coming to town in 2013, beginning at One Longfellow Square. In 2016, he played the historic State Theatre and the humble and modest musician played several of his songs with the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra, an experiment which accentuated his beautiful, contemporary folk songs. This time around, Isakov performed at a nearly sold out State Theatre in support of last year’s Evening Machines. A large tapestry of a field with a large satellite hung in the background as Isakov ,surrounded by his bandmates, made the entire evening feel like a private gathering on Isakov’s very own farmland, and everyone in the audience was lucky enough to have received an invitation to an incredibly special night of music.
Upon the band breaking into the first notes of “Dandelion Wine” to open the set, the crowd let out a collective cheer before holding their breath as the music took them away, as if they were transported to an open field, under the darkness of the night sky. It seemed like everyone forgot they were within the confines of the steamy, hot State Theatre. As the first song ended, the band transitioned seamlessly into two tracks from his latest album, “Southern Star” and “Dark, Dark, Dark,” which they played in such a way that you couldn’t necessarily tell where each song ended and the next one began. “Southern Star” along with a few of his other tunes throughout the night had that thumping drum beat perfect for foot stomping and swaying back and forth. After the fourth or fifth song, Isakov greeted the crowd and introduced the band, before telling a brief story about how he was “going to make an effort to talk more tonight,” because recently at a show in Vancouver, he admitted, he had not said one word the entire show. His efforts to tell a few more stories throughout the night were received with appreciation from the crowd, especially when he spoke about a song he’d written for an indie, straight-to-TV movie called An Amish Murder, with the climax of the story being that the song he wrote was not actually included on the soundtrack.
I loved the way songs like “Chemicals” and “San Luis” started off slow and built the anticipation for the band’s inevitable jamming, very much in the same vein as another contemporary folk band- Mumford & Sons. The crowd lost their minds during the loud crescendo of “San Luis.” Isakov’s vocal range throughout his songs, and even at times during the same song, is impressive as he can sing at both a high and low range. He seems to know exactly what each of his well-crafted lyrics call for. Sometimes, even singing lines into a microphone designed to sound a bit like a walkie-talkie. With a voice that, at times, reminds the listener of singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Josh Ritter, and even Bruce Springsteen, pieced together with an absolutely talented band of musicians, he creates a unique experience for his audience. He admittedly finds most of his inspiration from nature creating an introspection and existentialism to his lyrics, which speaks for itself when you hear it live, and upon further inspection, could be the reason why many of his songs can be heard on several television shows.
Perhaps the highlight of the night, though, were the songs that Isakov and band played at the front of the stage, surrounding one microphone and played nearly “unplugged,” making it truly feel like an intimate show where everyone was gathered in an emptied barn. This included two new songs, along with “Saint Valentine.” Then, opener Hayley Heyndrickx ,who had a great opening set of her own folk tunes, joined Gregory on stage and they proceeded to play a beautiful cover of Hedy West’s “500 Miles” together, with Hayley singing most of the lead vocals. It was during the quieter moments that I fully appreciated being among a crowd that respected the artist on stage and remained quiet themselves for the majority of the night. The audience was there to experience Isakov’s music completely. The full band returned to the stage and they ended the set with a few louder, rocking tunes including “The Universe” and “Liars,” both of which had the crowd cheering. As the band left the stage, the crowd let them know they wanted more, and of course, Isakov and company obliged with an encore that included perhaps his most popular song, “The Stable Song,” which served as an appetizer to the incredible finisher “All Shades of Blue.”
Seeing Isakov play larger venues almost every time he’s come into Portland, I’d love to see play Portland’s outdoor venue the next time around, because not only do I think his fanbase would follow him and bring friends along, but I think the “nature” of his songs lends itself to be heard outside.