Gregory Alan Isakov
Nashville, TN | 1.10.19
Photos + words by Britton Strickland
The diminishing state of mainstream music, media, politics, and global temperatures can ruffle emotions of even the sternest person, but there was an atmosphere of relief present at Nashville’s mother church at the sound of Gregory Alan Isakov’s soft words. He didn’t force everyone to hold hands and sing kumbaya (an actual request that I witnessed from a different performer last year) or extemporaneously rant about current events. He just thanked us for showing up, expressed his honor for playing such a historical venue, and showed us his humble musical genius while accompanied by his “best friends in the world” up on stage.
Gregory Alan Isakov has an uncanny capability to stimulate happiness through sad songs. He is a master at concocting poetic lyrics representative of an expertise beyond his years. Marking his 6th album Evening Machines and a return to his roots after a symphonic rendition in 2016, Greg stopped in Nashville to sell-out and debut at The Ryman Auditorium, home to the original Grand Ole Opry and associated legends. Mid-show, he reflected on this opportunity while sharing an epiphany he had during some pre-show toilet musings: “I couldn’t believe I was pooping where Jonny Cash pooped. Then I thought they probably changed the toilets since then, but I like to think they didn’t.”
The night started with Nashville’s favorite folk duo, The Milk Carton Kids, who performed their classics in front of a ribbon microphone. Joey Ryan’s soothing strums and Kenneth Pattengale’s melodic fingerpicking truly encapsulate a unique and timeless niche that brought the crowd to Nashville standards and prepared our hearts with what was to come.
A quick intermission. The lights dim. Blue light fills the stage showcasing a modest set with a few amps/instruments plus a backdrop with a large field and that big ole’ satellite from his Chemicals single cover. Isakov’s silhouette glided across the stage and took position. No extra lights. No big to do’s. We didn’t come to see the stage; we came to sit and listen. The set stayed softly lit for most of the show. I, the photographer, was probably the only one who cared, but I loved it still. I crouched by the stage as he ran through his first song “She Always Takes It Black” and watched the young woman beside me sit with her eyes closed, smiling. I couldn’t see anyone else, but I felt like everyone else had the same expression. I mean, how could they not?
They later gathered around a single microphone for songs like “Time Will Tell” and “Saint Valentine,” and their enthusiasm was contagious (unlike the clapping someone tried but failed to start). There was this one woman in the balcony that kept yelling at the most odd times, disrupting the reverence. All the whispers, limited production, and creaking of the pews made it feel more like a living room show with 2300+ of his biggest fans. The band came to its full volume during “Caves.” “I’m sure y’all are ready for some happy songs,” Greg commented. “Well I have this one, but I’m just gonna tell you it’s weird.” It made me chuckle, even though I didn’t get it. I still loved it. The show became the most heartfelt when he requested the show go dark during “The Universe.” “This song sounds better with the lights off.” And it did for some reason. Sensory deprivation made every piece sound evident.
Greg said his thank you’s after the main set crescendoed with “Liars” from his 2015 symphony album, but more was to come when the ribbon mic came back out for the encore. “The Stable Song” felt even more genuine and nostalgic with his buddy Steve Varney on the banjo. Then the whole group, including the Milk Carton Kids, finished it out with “All Shades of Blue” with everyone having their chance to solo in true Ryman fashion. The performance was a tremendous as expected, even better than when I saw him back in 2015. With 14 years of experience, Greg has proven himself a top performer, musician, and legend. We look forward to more music and having him back in Nashville to ease our weary soul.
1. She Always Takes It Black
2. Big Black Car
3. This Empty Northern Hemisphere
4. Was I Just Another One
6. Southern Star
7. Dark, Dark, Dark
9. Time Will Tell
10. Saint Valentine
11. Master & A Hound
14. The Universe
16. The Stable Song
17. All Shades of Blue (with Milk Carton Kids)