There’s a moment during Gregory Alan Isakov’s set at Nottingham’s Bodega Social when he mentions that ‘this is the biggest show I ever want to play’. A quick scan of his upcoming tour dates (and indeed past dates) reveals that this wish is unlikely to bear fruit any time soon. He’s on an upward ascendancy. But, it’s hard not to believe in Isakov’s conviction. Intimate surrounds are perhaps where these desolate, spaced-out, tunes are best observed.
Is it the mechanical whirr of a generator or a misplaced bolt in the air conditioning system that’s making that jarring noise? To experience the full impact of this show, we want to shut our eyes and be transported into a simpler, starker space. As Isakov and his bearded band of travelling musician buddies strum, pluck and beat an assortment of guitars, banjo, upright double bass and drum, we’re almost taken away to that shack on the edge of the plain. Almost but not quite. When Isakov suggests, a few songs into the set, that the lights are turned off so that they can play a song in the dark, nobody objects that they can’t see any on-stage theatrics. It’s simply not that sort of show.
Looking dapper in a smart hat that’s not quite cowboy, Isakov is the musical equivalent of one of those fashionable mumbling actors. When he introduces songs it’s with a laidback slur and a casual, introverted confidence. There’s undoubted influence drawn from the likes of Neil Young, Springsteen and Paul Simon though this never gets too derivative. It’s pretty much sold out here in Nottingham and most stand in awe as they meander along with the pace of the gig. Isakov muses about the challenging advice given to him by support artist and good friend, Leif Vollebekk, in their daily pre-gig ritual. “Just be yourself“, offers Leif.
A few words about that support slot. Leif has a funny awkward charm and a big, broad smile. He tells us he’s super-nervous today but I’m not sure I buy that. He plays a keyboard in three tunes and a guitar in two – complex layers and jazz tones are built before our eyes over which Leif’s soulful staccato vocal emerges. Leif’s head jerks in time with each frill and fill. His facial contortions are things to witness and cherish; what might his orgasm face look like if he gives this much to his music? In lots of ways, it’s the perfect counter for what’s to follow. “Life as you know it is over. It’s time to leave your significant other“, states Leif in praise of Gregory. That’s probably a bit too drastic but I’m sure many can see where he’s coming from.
For me, the best moments of Gregory Alan Isakov’s set is when he huddles his band around a radio mic centre stage. From here, the charm, talent and character of each band member comes to the fore. They produce tone and harmonies to die for. They’re clearly wedded to their instruments and life on the road. Put simply, this ‘nerdy folk thing’ is no part time job – this is their very essence. Leif joins Gregory for a Bruce Springsteen cover from The Ghost Of Tom Joad, an album that’s inspired the pair of them. That much is evident from the delivery.
The best is saved for last. Liars, the epic opening track from Isakov’s recent collaboration with the Colorado symphony, might have sounded underplayed without the orchestral pomp. But, we’ve already established that these five friends on stage are exquisite in their craft. And they belt this out with perfect ebb, flow and flourish. Isakov’s vocal deepens and the echo fills the room. As it merges into another track, Dandelion Wine, we realise we’ve just connected with something extraordinary.
Gregory Alan Isakov might yearn for venues of this size but simple laws of supply and demand are going to play havoc with that.