Gregory Alan Isakov performs at 9:30 Club on Nov. 11, 2018. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
A little more than two years have passed since Gregory Alan Isakov last graced a DC stage, playing the Kennedy Center with the NSO Pops, and three and a half since the last time he and his band held court over the stars and satellites at the 9:30 Club. For a man who comes from South Africa and calls Colorado home, every time he plays, it always feels familiar, like sitting by the fire after a long drive home, and it did so again at a sold-out show at 9:30 Club on Sunday.
Gregory is touring on his newest album — Evening Machines — a collection of 12 songs cut in the dark of a barn after long days farming (peep his instagram to say hello to some farm animals), dirt-soaked hands growing new songs. It’s a record that knows itself, highlighted by reflections and shaded with hard truths. There is, as always, a balance between lightness and darkness, but Gregory and his community of musicians created an album well-shaped for starlight and bonfires.
It is not hard to imagine these songs being born in the wide open spaces of Colorado’s skies; it’s heard in the songs, that balance between the music and space, a yearning to let the world breathe. Songs like “Berth” (an immigration song) with its oceanic strings that give way to near-silence, a crescendo that rises like a wild tide to start the album. A banjo that strides and leaps like a pack of wolves under a full moon on “Dark, Dark, Dark” and one of the most danceable little waltzes of Gregory’s oeuvre in “Southern Star.” It is a record of depth and honesty, of sincerity and quite a bit of sadness, darkness. It asks questions and doesn’t exactly offer answers.
Stream Evening Machine by Gregory Alan Isakov on Spotify:
Gregory named the album after the glow of the machines in his studio, the songs recorded at night. He walked onto the stage alone, backlit by two spotlights, opening the set with the transcendent (and frankly, unexpected) “She Always Takes It Black,” a personal favorite from The Weatherman. Evocative, dreamlike, his dusky watercolor world is announced. The band joined him onstage for “Big Black Car” to lead the audience through the first of many singalongs. Between songs and after thunderous applause, the audience maintained such a level of silence that Gregory thanked us for our kindness, politeness. A Sunday show in more ways than one.
Gregory solo onstage at the beginning of the show.
After an explosive rendition of “This Empty Northern Hemisphere,” Gregory and the band ripped off a run of seven straight songs from the new record, including the aforementioned songs, as well as singles “Chemicals” and “Caves,” along with “Powder.” “Caves” was a favorite of the night, with him singing to the audience, imploring us to “put all those words away,” a prayerful refrain, an earnest request.
The band walked off the stage for a little while, and Gregory sang “Master & A Hound” from the album This Empty Northern Hemisphere. The moment when he brings forth his voice with all the power he can muster to sing,
“Can you shake it up
just once for me
your little globe just so we can see
the snow blowin’ round your hands,”
is another moment of easy transcendence.
When the band comes back out, he requests the lights cut off, the whole place dim, dark, and breathing. An organic thing. Nothing but the words, the music, and a few dim and distant lights. “Liars,” a highlight from Gregory’s album with the Colorado Symphony, led to an extended jam session with all of the flashing lights and catharsis that live music can offer without setting the world ablaze. They returned for the encore around a single silver mic, every instrument unplugged, amplified by closeness, by community, ending the night with “All Shades of Blue” with its evocative autumnal imagery, its gentle hopes amidst the heavy weight of a heart colored in the many hues of sadness.
As the audience began shuffling to the doors, out walked Gregory with Leif Vollebekk, the night’s opener (highly recommended), to smile and laugh their way through a one-song second encore. They spoke of their shared love for Springsteen, singing “Dry Lightning” from The Ghost of Tom Joad together, trading verses and that subtle refrain, until finally, they raised their guitars and walked off the stage.
The lights kicked on, then the music, but the show never really ended. The glory of well-lived songs, of music that fills the space around you and is shared with a temporary community, is that it stays with you until your brain shuts down.
Gregory is coming back to the greater DC area, playing in Baltimore at the Soundstage in January. (Buy your tickets online for Gregory Alan Isakov at Baltimore Soundstage on Jan. 12.)
Don’t miss it.
Here are a few pictures of Gregory Alan Isakov performing at 9:30 Club on Nov. 11, 2018. All photos copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.
John Paul Grigsby on bass
Steve Varney on banjo/guitar