GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV at BOETTCHER CONCERT HALL As he spoke to the massive crowd at Boettcher Concert Hall, you could tell that Gregory Alan Isakov was still getting used to the scope of the venue and the caliber of the musicians he was playing with. "I've been very, very nervous about this show for a long time," said Isakov of performing with the Colorado Symphony. Isakov insisted he was just a guitar player, and the nerves came from playing in front of "some of the most amazing musicians in the world."
Happily for Isakov and the thousands in attendance, any of those fears were completely unfounded. The collaborative performance between Isakov and the Colorado Symphony was seamless. Thanks in part to string arrangements penned by DeVotchKa violinist Tom Hagerman, Isakov's folk-rock anthems gained power and depth with the backing of a full classical orchestra.
And thanks to expert sound mixing and engineering on the part of the house crew at Boettcher, the subtleties of Isakov's voice never got lost in the mix. Through sweeping accompaniment from the orchestra's string, brass and timpani sections, Isakov's understated and earnest vocals never got drowned out. The songwriter's thoughtful lyrics remained at the forefront for the whole show, and that made all the difference. At its heart, this was a pop show, and the performance never took on an overly formal feel.
Isakov set out that mood with the first tune, a solo version of the ballad "She Always Takes It Black." Dressed simply in a button-up shirt, vest and gray jeans, Isakov emerged under the glare of a single spotlight to thunderous applause from the crowd. Speaking in quiet tones and clipped words, Isakov set out the program for the night. After his first solo tune, Isakov's band joined him for a stirring rendition of "All Shades of Blue." As he switched from guitar to banjo for that tune, the audience got to hear the expansive sound Isakov can make with only a quintet just before the Symphony joined him for a stunning version of "Amsterdam."
It took only moments for the dozens of Symphony and resident conductor Scott O'Neil to take their positions on the huge Boettcher stage. From there, the players didn't waste any time in exploring all of the musical options. "Amsterdam" featured sweeping string lines and dramatic stretches of percussion from the timpani. The arrangements for "Big Black Car," "This Empty Northern Hemisphere" and "The Stable Song" never felt overly flashy. Isakov's voice and guitar remained the focal point -- the orchestral accompaniment worked with natural pauses and cues in the songs.
Subtlety was key as the ensemble moved on to versions of "St. Valentine" and "Liars." The big sounds from the Symphony never overtook Isakov's vocal effects on different microphones or the input from the core rock band. Banjo solos from Steve Varney, piano lines from James Han and cello accompaniment by Philip Parker fit in tastefully with backup from entire orchestra sections.
Of course, that wasn't too surprising, considering the acoustics of the venue. The acoustic perks of the Boettcher hall were clear as the band moved into its second set, an eight-song performance that included versions of "Second Chance," "Living Proof" and "That Moon Song." Isakov and his fellow band members opened the second act with spare and sparse four-part harmonies that seemed to fill up the room. Rambling waltzes and heartfelt love songs rang just as clearly as the dramatic drum runs and full horn blasts from the orchestra.
The crowd was appreciative, and they weren't shy about showing it. When Isakov and the orchestra wrapped up "That Moon Song," the hall exploded in applause. The response was just as frenzied after Isakov took the stage with a slimmed down ensemble for an encore performance of "If I Go, I'm Goin'." Joined only by his own band, conductor Scott O'Neil and four horn players from the brass section, the performance showed restraint.
That masterful mix of sounds and instruments summed up the feel of the entire evening. After collaborations with other bands like DeVotchKa and Nathaniel Rateliff, the Colorado Symphony is no stranger to finding tasteful and moving ways to augment pop music. Friday's performance showed that the ensemble is taking important lessons from that experience, just as it proved that Isakov's skills as a songwriter and lyricist can shine in a whole wealth of formats.
Personal Bias: I didn't need full orchestral accompaniment to be moved by Isakov's words. A stretch of lyrics from Isakov's first solo performance of "She Always Takes It Black" hit me pretty hard. "You'll love her 'til it all goes dark/You'll love her even after that." Random Note: The lines were ridiculously packed before showtime. Crowds snaked out of the doors of Boettcher and the first song came twenty minutes after the scheduled start time. By the Way: Full orchestral accompaniment fits "This Empty Northern Hemisphere" particularly well.
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