Gregory Alan Isakov @ The El Rey

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By Roy Trakin.

I first caught wind of this South African-born, now Colorado troubadour/horticulturalist when Patti Smith covered his “The Stable Song” at the Roxy, claiming she picked it up from a performance on YouTube. Then, I get an email from my pal Asha Goodman at Sachs & Co. with an invitation to see the guy at a sold-out El Rey, where you could hear a pin drop as 750 people stood in hushed, reverent silence, erupting into whoops and hollers as the tension built up through each atmospheric number.

Seems the thirtysomething hipster crowd has discovered roots music in a big way, as Isakov’s recent The Weatherman album – his third — has topped both iTunes’ Singer/Songwriter and Billboard’s Mountain and Pacific Heatseekers charts, while the presence of the Relix critic seated next to me indicates he’s making inroads in the jam band world as well. 

Fronting a five-piece band including guitarist/banjo Steve Varney, with both a violinist (Jeb Bowes) and cellist (Philip Parker), the latter providing the somber, Velvets-like feel to the proceedings, the unassuming, bearded (naturally) Isakov fits snugly into the post-modern troubadour category occupied by the likes of Bon Iver and Ray LaMontagne. 

Fact is, the guy actually is a farmer, and his songs come across in that organic way, seeds planted, nurtured, then harvested into shimmering, mesmerizing short stories about everyday life, ploughing the fertile storytelling fields once and still tilled by the likes of Dylan, Springsteen, Van Morrison, John Prine, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and The Band, who have turned out to be a massive influence on the whole Americana movement. 

Songs like “Amsterdam” and “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” evoke a solid feeling of atmosphere and place, the latter’s martial beat culminating in an Arcade Fire-like climax. 

Isakov frequently uses a megaphone effect to cast an eerie ghost-like presence in his vocals, the glowing globe on the otherwise barren stage illuminating the guitar licks on “O’ City Lights,” which begins, “Maria’s stoned like a porcelain saint/Sweet morphine, sweet morphine.” “That Moon Song” with its evocative imagery about a break-up, “The tail lights burn red/They were hotter than hell/And I’ve been long gone/Couldn’t you tell” set up the surging The Band-like conclusion, “And those broken-hearted lovers/They got nothing on me.” The banjo and cello ebb and flow give the Dylanesque lyrics “Big Black Car” their mournful, dramatic gravity: “And through the carnival we watch them go round and round/All we knew of home was just a sunset and some clowns.”

Isakov asks for the lights to be turned out completely, leaving just the shining orb on-stage to illuminate “The Universe,” an ode to the environment that perfectly matches the pitch-black room: “The Universe, she’s dancing now/They got her lit up/Lit up on the moon/They got stars doing cartwheels/All the nebulas on the tune.” And when he describes her as “whispering so softly I can hear all the croaking insects, all the taxi cabs, all the bums’ spent change/All the boys playing ball in the alleyways,” it’s as good a description of what he’s doing with his awe of nature and the subtlety of his quietude.  

The four – minus a drummer – gather stage front for “Saint Valentine,” as Isakov reaches for the falsetto on the closing “You’re all fucked up,” which ends to thunderous applause.  With Varney on banjo and Isakov on acoustic, they turn “The Stable Song” – from his 2007 album, That Sea, The Gambler — into a haunting, gleaming duet with its refrain: “Ring like silver/ring like gold/Turn these diamonds straight back into coal.” 

For a solo turn, Isakov leans into the sensual “She Always Takes It Black,” then brings the band back for some background harmonies, “to live out my doo-wop dream,” on “Honey It’s Alright,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on the Velvet Underground’s third album.  Gregory introduced “Second Chances” as a song “about fucking up,” a sawing violin spotlighting the plea, “I’m all bloody knuckles/Longing for home.” 

“I’m going to leave you with something slow and weird,” he says, before using the megaphone for “Liars,” a song that brings to mind the deliberate pace of the Cowboy Junkies’ languid take on “Sweet Jane.” “I’ll play it even slower so it lasts longer,” he tells the crowd, registering their disappointment, before finishing the set proper with “Dandelion Wine.” 

The encore, “Master & a Hound,” he intros by relating, “I wrote this song in my parents’ basement,” before bringing on opening act Shook Twins (whose own set-closing “Earth Is Gonna Shake” paid tribute to L.A.’s precarious perch on the San Andreas Fault) for a celebratory “Drank All the Wine,” which the assembled turn into a hootenanny (remember them?), creating a new/old classic in the process. Keep your eyes on this singing farmer… his crop is already bountiful.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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