Gregory Alan Isakov @ Newport Music Hall, Columbus (1/24/19)
Gregory Alan Isakov, a truly underrated folk deity, performed in a stunning late-January concert at the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio. Drawing in the perfect audience and creating a suitable aesthetic, Isakov and his backing band members put on an outstanding raw performance. It was a fantastic show even from the opening act, which featured solo guitarist Danny Black. Isakov has a very invariable discography; all songs are similar in their tempo and somber mood, which created my personal uncertainty for how the concert was going to go in terms of keeping the audience interested. To my surprise, the show exceeded all expectations and made for a flawlessly enriching event.
The concert opened with Danny Black, a member of the band Good Old War. As Isakov mentions later in the show, he and Black have been lifelong friends that both found success and passion in music. Black performed fast-paced acoustic rock, but it didn’t seem like he was there to show off his music— his real talent came with his incredibly fast picking and strumming skills. The compositions of his music were so intricate, and he was impressively skilled in his ability to play them quickly; eyes couldn’t possibly keep up with how fast his hands were moving. In a few songs he used both acoustic and electric guitar, with the acoustic strapped on to himself and the electric propped on a stand. He stood behind the electric guitar and switched back and forth between the two, within the same song. To develop the full instrumentals with many different melodies by himself, he used an overlapping pedal throughout the performance.
The energy he had while he played was transferred straight into the audience. His adrenaline and excitement were communicated through the music and the listeners could undoubtedly feel every bit of it. In addition to his high spirits, he was very personal with his audience, occasionally throwing in jokes about his nervousness and his appreciation for the crowd’s support. In hindsight, there couldn’t have been a better opener for Isakov.
Gregory Alan Isakov and his contemporary folk music have an incredible way of pulling at heartstrings. All of his music is very similar, generally very slow in tempo, but in a good way that reclines the listener’s mind and makes them feel at ease. His music itself never gets boring, as each of his songs are uniquely crafted and all equally moving. Although I’ve always held a deep appreciation for his music, I went to the concert with a preconceived notion that he would have a hard time keeping the audience awake. I’m more than willing to admit that I was wrong — retrospectively, it was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
Pulling together the perfect aesthetic
Even before Isakov came on stage, a collective aesthetic brought the scene together. The millennial demographic that Isakov attracted was nothing less than expected: a friendly community with a dress code dominated by flannel shirts, blue jeans, and Carhartt beanies. The Newport Music Hall also fit the picture well, it was almost a cross between a simplified rustic theater and a bar scene. In essence, it seemed like this theater, in particular, was the audience’s native setting. The area was relatively small, which created a packed congregation of music-lovers, but it added to the intimate experience. The stage itself was set up in a very simplified and typical way; Isakov, of course, was placed center stage, and the other five musicians surrounded him in a spaced out semi-circle. Behind them was the backdrop, which was appropriately set to the picture in his album cover The Weatherman. To bring a bit of the theme onto the stage, there were four illuminated world globes placed around the musicians. This element, despite not being much, was an admirable detail that added to the overall visual appeal of the performance. Every aspect of the atmosphere was modest, which in the case of Isakov’s music was a good thing; it all enhanced the style, but it never distracted from the performance.
Concerts are a special type of musical experience, and it’s generally expected that the music itself will sound relatively clouded due to fighting the audience’s noise levels and the fact that it’s not perfectly recorded in a studio. With this live performance, the opposite was true. As professional album recordings, Isakov’s music is very pure in sound and by no means overproduced. During his live performance, Isakov and his supporting musicians are first-rate in terms of really focusing on the clarity of the music and giving the listeners what they came to hear.
On the subject of keeping the audience engaged, small effects were added to keep it interesting. There were enough to enhance the music, but again, not enough to distract from it. One of the most prominent elements to consider were the light changes. The soft stage lights changed colors to complement the mood of each individual song. Additionally, they even accompanied transitions between songs to match sight with sound. Isakov’s go-to method of transition from one song to the next was a smooth change in melody, and the lights only added to that satisfying flow of movement.
Other small but strong effects used in this performance include sound enhancements; one example is the intensified drum beat. You’re always able to hear the drum in Isakov’s songs, but it’s often overshadowed by the other instrumentation in studio recordings. The drumbeat was a stand-out part of the performance; it was one of those live drumbeats that seemed to travel from the stage, through the floor, and right into your chest. In a way, it almost felt like a second heartbeat that physically moved you. Aside from the drums, perhaps one of the best features of the show was Isakov’s use of a vintage dynamic microphone in many of his songs. This isn’t something you’d typically see in concert, even with the folk genre. This particular microphone effect is found in many of his songs, and it was unusually admirable to see it used live. Every small detail only made the music better than it already was. This entire performance was perfectly in tune, and one encore just wasn’t enough.
Ending on a perfect note
As most performers do, Isakov ran off stage at the end of his set with a simple “thank you” to the audience. In concert culture, it’s common that artist will do this in a very pathetic way that’s a dead giveaway; we all knew he was coming back for an encore. Few minutes passed before he and one other musician came back onto the stage, standing ready with a guitar and a banjo. The two of them stood beneath a singular spotlight, sharing one microphone. The banjo was a pretty good indication that we were about to hear “The Stable Song,” one of Isakov’s older and more popular songs. It was beautiful with the just the two performing, but it became even better as the audience collectively decided to be a part of the show.
Throughout the concert, the audience had generally been at a stand-still, not moving much but just swaying discretely and letting their ears take everything in. In an act of community relationship through music, everyone in the theater started singing along with Isakov, reciting the song with every bit of passion that he did. Following the Stable Song, the rest of the band members, including Danny Black, came back on stage. Still sharing one microphone and a singular spotlight, they performed Shades of Blue with such spirit and closeness, it looked as if they were one family sharing a similar passion. They were playing for both themselves as well as the audience, and it was a very connecting moment that made for the perfect ending to a truly astonishing performance.
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