The true test of a performer is whether the artist can perform to the same level of emotion and feeling when everything is stripped to its core.
It’s in these moments, where it may only be one vocal and guitar, or piano or similar, that an artist is truly vulnerable and are left with only their own talent to get them through. There are no supporting musicians to hide behind. No production fluff. No fading in or out. It’s you, your instrument and the audience.
On Saturday night, at the isolated yet somehow homely Factory Theatre, relatively unknown artist Gregory Alan Isakov is put through his paces, and passes with flying colours.
Isakov (in his first tour down under) comes on the back of his stunning 2018 release, Evening Machines. It’s a brilliant album, capturing the essence of his folk-acoustic stylings but intertwined with a mix of ambience. The unique take on his off-beat country offerings is truly a delight – and it is with much anticipation that I attend on an extremely rainy, gloomy Saturday.
Opening with the gorgeously simple ‘She Always Takes It Black’, the first element noticeable is Isakov‘s insanely well-trained voice. On record, his voice can come across as smooth but subtle, dark yet comforting. Live it is an absolute powerhouse. Quite obviously classically trained, Isakov captivates the audience from his opening murmur. With a smooth segue way into crowd favourite ‘Big Black Car’ and onto deep-cut ‘This Empty Northern Hemisphere’, it’s immediate that tonight is all about stripping back the album versions and providing us with an intimate evening. A near perfect solo rendition of ‘Master & A Hound’ showcases the best of the above, with Isakov allowing his high baritone vocals to soar.
It’s not all solo-Isakov tonight however. His small band consists of a violinist, cellist and guitarist/banjoist backing – which makes for a perfectly blended background to his luscious tunes. Most notably when the four musicians huddle at the front of the stage around a single microphone to perform absolute gems ‘Time Will Tell’ and ‘Saint Valentine’ acoustically – the latter getting one of the loudest, most rapturous applauses of the evening. The band is completely captivating, with vocal harmonies and little spotlight solos being bounced off one another. As the band played to the lone microphone, each member moved their bodies and instruments to different places near the microphone in an effort to ‘live mix’ the sound. Truly impressive.
Recently, I attended a Mumford and Sons gig and I noted that their highlights were of a similar manner (singing acoustically around one microphone), but there wasn’t enough of it. Isakov certainly played to his strengths tonight as they returned to the one microphone later in the evening to perform ‘The Stable Song’. These were by far the most well received moments of the night, and it really was a delight to witness.
With the stripped back theme of the evening, it was a shame that we weren’t given many songs off the new album. Understandably, these were likely left behind as they required piano/drums to fulfil their album counterparts, but it would have been nice for them to get an acoustic treatment. Nevertheless, the song choice otherwise was fantastic, and it felt like all the big hitters got given a run (with the notable exception of personal favourite ‘Words’).
Isakov is by no means a household name, but the more people who give his music the time to stretch its legs, the more likely they are to become fans. I have no doubt the next time Isakov graces the Australian shores it will be in much larger venues. The band were not afraid to be themselves, and to do things slightly differently (a complete blackout for the magical ‘The Universe’ was a sight to see – very unique), and the crowd responded enthusiastically.
Barely a fault tonight, an incredibly enjoyable evening from a very talented young man.
Gregory Alan Isakov, Factory Theatre, Saturday 16th March 2019
- She Always Takes It Black
- Big Black Car
- This Empty Northern Hemisphere
- Was I Just Another One?
- Southern Star
- Dark, Dark, Dark
- Second Chances
- All There Is
- Time Will Tell
- Saint Valentine
- Master & A Hound
- The Universe
- The Stable Song
- All Shades Of Blue