Gregory Alan Isakov performs at Baltimore Soundstage on Jan. 12, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
Just 61 days since he last came to the greater area (at 9:30 Club), Gregory Alan Isakov coasted into Baltimore at the Soundstage, one imagines in his old Vanagon (it wasn’t), his bandmates along for the ride.
It’s effectively been a month since Greg’s last tour ended, although he played a few shows in Colorado before the end of the year. It’s easy to imagine what he did with his time at home, checking the cover crops — those that keep the soil safe — the same way his songs keep the world a little safer for his fans, both embracing the darkness and holding it at bay.
It’s easy to hear that work in his music now, the challenge of being a full-time farmer and a full-time musician. It’s easy to hear the shadows in these songs — the way he quit drinking, the way he lassos the anxiety, the panic. I have spent a significant amount of my listening time with Evening Machines these last two months, the songs’ melodies and tones as familiar as breathing now. From the crescendo of “Berth” that begins the record, the familiar waltzing of “Southern Star,” the haunting of “Where You Gonna Go” and “Chemicals” to the gentle, almost buried, hopes peeking through “Caves” and “Wings in All Black” that ends it.
On Saturday night, Greg shared that he wrote nearly 40 songs for the album, paring it down to around 12, telling the writer’s truth that he could narrow the pool because there are phrases and trains of thought he reused. In an interview with Atwood Magazine, he explained that writing the album was like building a house only to burn it down to build it again. The work, he said, was in building the sound, the space.
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Greg has maintained a fierce independence in his career, running his own label to publish every record he’s written. Evening Machines was his first to use a major label (Dualtone Records), and maybe it’s paid off, peaking at his highest charting on the Billboard 200. Not that that’s been his goal — he joked about never having a hit but then said seriously that he likes it better that way because the audience never hopes for just one song.
And in truth, that couldn’t have been truer of this audience. Briefly polling the folks around me yielded six different songs they all hoped to hear (5 of 6 were played, with only a cover of “Trapeze Swinger” missing from the desired list).
Returning to stage alone, Greg played “She Always Takes It Black,” two spotlights upon his back. The band joined him slowly, building the song with him, tone by tone and note by note, until they exploded into “Big Black Car” and “This Empty Northern Hemisphere.” The audience raised its collective voice with every crashing refrain.
That was a difference tonight; there was an easy connection from band to audience, a direct line. No divider between the stage; the stage a little smaller; the band a little looser. They bantered, they played, they sang. At one point, Greg said Steve Varney (guitarist and also a musician in his own right, Kid Reverie) told him to try talking more, so he did. We laughed with him and listened, thankful to hear the stories with the songs.
The band shuttled through some Evening Machines standouts, such as “Chemicals,” “Dark Dark Dark,” and the aforementioned “Southern Star” and “Berth” before crowding around a single mic to sing “Time Will Tell” and a crowd-involved favorite, “St. Valentine.”
Afterward, the band left the stage for Greg alone to sing, “Master and a Hound,” a song that for me is the closest thing to a prayer made physical. On this night, it almost felt like Greg singing, “Can you shake it up / just once for me / your little globe just so we can see / the snow blowing round your hands,” pulled the hands of fate or God into Baltimore’s city streets to cover them with snow.
The band returned to the stage, beckoning the audience to sing along to “Caves” and then cutting the lights to “The Universe” before closing the set with “Liars,” a barnburning, crowd-moving, earthshaking tune as full of bombast and beauty as a clear-sky meteor shower.
Everyone said good night, but returned to crowd around the mic one more time for a few more songs. Greg and Steve smiled through “The Stable Song” before inviting The Shook Twins (who opened the show) to sing with them and then closing the night with “All Shades of Blue” off The Weatherman, every musician in the house huddling into each other to sing and play unplugged.
When we left, snow falling, the city seemed silent. Roads covered, we hummed and sang the songs we’d just heard as we coasted home.
“Broken bottles shine just like stars / Make a wish anyway / Just your smile lit a sixty-watt bulb in my house / That was darkened for days / Been thinking you probably should stay / Yeah, I think that you probably should stay”
Maybe we did stay.
Here are some photos of Gregory Alan Isakov performing at Baltimore Soundstage on Jan. 12, 2019. All photos courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.