Gregory Alan Isakov, Bela Karoli, the Widow's Bane and the Blue Maddies
Saturday, May 15, 2009
Better than: A real "folk punk" show surrounded by a bunch of sweaty dudes in denim vests.
Amy Ray from the the Indigo Girls once erroneously dubbed Gregory Alan Isakov's music "punk folk," a description that conjures images of wild fist-pumping sing-a-longs that are common place for bands like Mischief Brew and Andrew Jackson Jihad, who are already well rooted in the genre. As evidenced by last night's show, this designation, as it applies to Isakov is most certainly a misnomer. On Friday night, Gregory Allen Isakov and his stellar backup band dreamily swayed through fourteen songs, the bulk of which were taken from his latest effort, This Empty Northern Hemisphere. And whether it was respect, admiration or just plain awe, the crowd was as silent as it was attentive during his set.
Before Isakov's set, the forever evolving Bela Karoli offered up its unique brand of trip-hop-chamber pop. Laying strings over pre-programmed drum beats, the quartet have perfected a niche that is very hard to copy. Adding to the allure of this band is front woman Julie Davis, whose eerie melodies and phrasing make you feel like you're watching a band fronted by Sylvia Plath. Davis later pitched in with vocals on a few songs during Isakov's set, which were originally sung by Brandi Carlile.
Isakov came off typically warm and personable as he humbly took the stage next. "I'm just gonna pretend I'm not nervous," he commented at one point. Starting the show the same way he starts off his album, with the soaring summer opus "Dandelion Wine," Isakov was joined by his backing band and a cast of other musicians who, all joined him on stage for the duration of the tune. By the second song, "Big Black Car," four members left the stage as strings were used sparingly and plucked rather than bowed. Members continued to come and go throughout the rest of the night in a similar fashion to Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. (Isakov opted not to don a giant suit with exaggerated shoulder pads ala David Byrne, though, unfortunately.)
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No matter how many members were on stage, Isakov remained the focal point, with his soft croon tucked neatly into the music on larger numbers such as "If I Go" and then soaring to the balcony when he took the stage by himself on "3 a.m." On several songs, he switched to a mike with overdrive that, although it works on the record, was too loud and distorted and sounded like the PA system at an airport. That minor misstep aside, the vocals sounded great and his voice was pitch perfect and nearly exactly the way it sounds on the album.
Blue Maddies were set to play after Isakov as part of an after party but fans shuffled out the door as soon as the last note of "Salt & Sea" was played. Not many bands can follow that.
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Personal Bias: Isakov's manager Sara is one of the nicest "suits" I have ever met.
Random Detail: I missed the Widow's Bane, because I was next door watching a basketball game that I didn't realize was played the night before.
By the way: Isakov has several forthcoming shows with the Indigo Girls
2. Big Black Car
3. Master & Hound
4. Virginia May
7. If I Go
8. That Moon
9. Liars or Stable
12. Empty Northern Hemisphere
13. Unknown Solo Song
14. Salt & Sea