Gregory Alan Isakov writes songs for travellers. He’s an indie folk singer-songwriter whose work depicts places and people you can visit with a single listen – which explains why people travelled from miles around to hear him weave his stories in London last night. The personal nature of much of his repertoire might have made his music difficult to do justice to or even perform on stage, but Isakov provided an outstanding performance which showcased the very best of his work and talent. With a fantastic backing band and a strong opening act from Leif Vollebekk, Isakov managed to make this sold-out turn at the Islington Assembly Hall, a venue for 800 people, feel like an intimate meeting between good friends.
London was the last stop on his European tour before he heads back to the US, and it was a good day for a glorious send-off. My walk to Islington had unintentionally become a city tour – I forgot to bring a map and, just as Forrest Gump walked obliviously into all those seminal moments of history, I stumbled unwittingly upon Buckingham Palace and Downing Street – but getting lost in London ain’t so bad when you’ve got good music and sunshine. I gave Isakov’s discography another listen as I meandered around the city, and I eventually found Upper Street in Islington, a stylish district of restaurants and bars.
Isakov managed to make this sold-out turn at the Islington Assembly Hall feel like an intimate meeting between good friends
The Assembly Hall is fast becoming a favourite mid-sized venue in London, and it’s easy to reach using the Underground – if you’re considering popping out from Oxford this Trinity for a mid-term breather, this would be a great spot to recharge your soul with music. The venue began its life as a dance hall in the 1930s, but the installation of a disco ball and a few bars have transformed it into a great gig space since its reopening in 2010. It’s also a common venue for weddings, as opening act Leif Vollebekk realised when he was asked by the cab driver who dropped him off if he was getting married there.
Vollebekk kicked off proceedings with a solo six-song set. Five of the tracks were his own – all from the recently released Twin Solitude, except for a new song – while the sixth was a heartfelt cover of Joni Mitchell’s Case of You. I was pleased to hear some of the standout tracks from his new record, including a beautiful and jazzy rendition of Elegy on the keyboard, but surprised that a track or two from his previous album didn’t sneak in. Twin Solitude’s predecessor, North Americana, is a particularly well-polished record and, while Vollebekk’s sound has developed since the 2013 offering, the crowd seemed familiar enough with his work (or at least willing enough to listen to the supporting act) to let him get away with a few throwbacks. Nonetheless, his new work has a just-right-on-the-first-take feeling to it which its predecessor lacks, and which truly gives life to its performance on stage.
Musicians are often complimented for sounding the same live as they do on their records. The spontaneity which makes up much of Vollebekk’s musical charm defies repetition, however, and the live versions were refreshingly different to the originals. The stripped-down accompaniment gave the lyrics a chance to shine at the forefront of the arrangement, with an acoustic rendition of Michigan proving particularly powerful. He is a striking solo performer – he feels the music, contorting his face and body in spectacular and occasionally alarming fashion as he plays each note. The new song in his set, tentatively dubbed “country song”, and the Mitchell cover gave depth to the performance and showcased his distinctive, animated style. Though he was only the opening act, Vollebekk is a remarkable songwriter and Twin Solitude deserves its own live platform, and so we can expect to see him back in London leading his own tour sometime soon.
After half an hour with Leif, the stage was set for Isakov and his band. A delightful quirk of the band’s stage set-up was the bass drum, which lit up and looked like a glowing yellow moon at the feet of the players. A little red lamp in the shape of a globe lay on a table a metre or so away, and a dim red light illuminated the stage in the band’s absence while the disco ball spread star-like dots of light around the hall. The end result was a set which was halfway between a cosy firelit living room and outer space – a difficult combination to pull off, but surprisingly fitting for the concert at hand. Isakov would relate at one point in the performance that he had been asked by an Italian journalist what his songs were about, and had replied that they were “sad songs about space and stuff”.
The set was halfway between a cosy firelit living room and outer space
As soon as the band embarked on their first song – She Always Takes It Black, the closing track from his third album – it was clear that we were in for more than just sad songs about space. Granted, we did get to hear The Universe, which is perhaps the most galactical song in Isakov’s repertoire, but his discography is far more wide-ranging than that. With three original albums to choose from, the audience were not short of requests, and the songwriter was more than happy to perform fan favourites. He was accompanied by a fiddler, a double bassist, a drummer and a guitarist who dabbled in the banjo, all of whom filled out the folk sound and put in an excellent performance. The fiddle and the banjo were called upon for solos at opportune moments and never disappointed – even the double bass, which formed the backbone of each song and gave Isakov’s acoustic originals more body, had its moment in the sun with a short but sweet solo to wild applause.
The most well-loved songs in his repertoire were given new life on stage by the band. Amsterdam, a firm favourite, transformed beautifully once arranged for the Colorado Symphony for Isakov’s latest album, and the band emulated the symphonic arrangement with their own bluegrass twist. The same can be said for The Stable Song, which was also given a dramatic makeover for its performance with the symphony. The latter sounded better on stage than it could in any studio recording – live, it was the product of five musicians having fun with a beloved old song, creating an energy and connection with the audience that couldn’t be captured on tape.
Isakov is known for playing new tracks on tour – the band has whole cassettes of songs which may never make it on to a record, he said – and when the musicians gathered around a single microphone at the front of the stage to perform one for us, we were warned not to get too attached to it. The song’s haunting harmonies and lyrics made that difficult. Isakov’s most recent album was a rerecording of select tracks from his discography with the Colorado Symphony, released in the summer of 2016. Before that came The Weatherman in 2013 – it’s been five years since we’ve had a new album to learn the lyrics to, and it was refreshing to hear how his songwriting style has matured in that time. The tune was catchy and raw, and with each performer stepping up to the microphone for a short solo, it felt like we were witnessing a bunch of best friends jamming back in Colorado rather than a concert. Isakov seemed genuinely grateful for the new song’s warm reception. “Keep that one!” shouted a man in the crowd, getting a grin from the band and a ripple of approving laughter from their audience.
A highlight of the night’s performance was when Leif Vollebekk was invited back on to the stage for a duet with Isakov. The band had stepped away so they were performing with their acoustic guitars alone, and as they tuned up, they chatted with the crowd. Their double act was humble and genuinely funny – they appeared more like siblings than tourmates as they made gentle jokes at each other’s expense. Once the laughter was done, they broke into a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dry Lightning; it’s a woefully underacknowledged song tucked away on the Boss’s Ghost of Tom Joad record, and their rendition of it struck the room into appreciative silence. Springsteen has clearly influenced their music and they performed the track like fans, intent on honouring the work and singing each line with feeling. More than anything, it showed off their ample guitar skills. As songwriters, both use instruments as a base for their centrepiece lyrics – once they were performing somebody else’s masterpiece, they could throw in impressive flourishes on the guitar which come second to penmanship on their own records.
Vollebekk and Isakov appeared more like siblings than tourmates as they made gentle jokes at each other’s expense
Their set finished with Liars, the lead single from Isakov’s work with the Colorado Symphony, which built to a crushing crescendo. The musicians let loose – the fiddler delivered an intense solo which gave the whole orchestra on the record a run for its money. The band left the stage after an 80-minute set, but they were called back on by a foot-stomping call for encore and a standing ovation in the stalls. After the band trooped back on, the penultimate song of the gig was a rendition of All Shades of Blue, performed with the band and Leif Vollebekk gathered around a single microphone once again. It’s a placid but melancholy ditty about bad luck, and fittingly, it was the song stuck in my head on the way home as I got stuck with a big fine for missing my train. The crowd’s request for a second encore was not granted – though that was probably for the best because, if it had been, I would have gladly missed the next train too.
Isakov’s performance, and thus his European tour, finished with the crowd repeating a single line with him while the guitar strummed gently into silence: “Let’s put all these words away.” This has been a staple of his recent shows and it’s easy to see why – his sets are personal, raw and often emotionally charged. The audience in London had listened enraptured to their favourite lyrics and lines as though Isakov held the answers to some pretty big questions, and the band seemed to be touched by their dedication. Once all those feelings had been unpacked and exorcised, it was time to head back into a world which hadn’t seen this tour, hadn’t shared that feeling – we’d spent a couple of hours listening to one man’s commentary on life, and now it was time to go out and live again. It won’t be forgotten for a long time by those who were there to witness it, however. Isakov and his bandmates brought magic to the stage at Islington – I can only hope they’ll bring it back soon.