Beacon Theatre is an awfully big place for just a guy and his guitar to keep entertained. But on September 24th, that is exactly what Gregory Alan Isakov was tasked to do. The singer-songwriter has taken the road on his own these days, while occasionally grouping back up with his band, like last weekend at Boston Calling.
A few days before his show I got a chance to catch up with Isakov and talk about his influences, the tour, and some future plans. Originally from Pennsylvania, now relocated to Colorado, Isakov’s influences are from all over the musical map. “Originally I wanted to sound like Pearl Jam,” he says, when asked where his particular brand of music came from. “But I feel like everyone goes through a phase where they want to sound like them.” While Gregory and his band may not sound exactly like Pearl Jam, their catalog has found its own niche in the current indie music world. With almost 10 years of music under their belt, this group has mastered a very particular sound that is extremely difficult to pin down.
One of the things that sets Isakov apart, is his songwriting abilities. There is a very genuine feel to his lyrics, with songs like “Master and a Hound” or “Second Chances,” the listener is given a window into the world of the singer. In regards to “Master and a Hound,” he said that “there is a lot of longing in that song, it’s about wanting to be in two places at the same time.” Longing is probably a word I would use most often when trying to summarize a mood in his music. There is always a strong emotional aspect to his songs, a sort of feeling that you may not be able to come up with right away but you can tell is there. The power in the music is undeniably palpable and something that has not come easy.
“I’ve always written songs and thrown away more than I keep and once in a while I get lucky. I really look up to Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, I hear them and think everything that comes out of them is genius, but no one sees their trashcan. If the song doesn’t make me feel anything, that goes back into the scrap pile.” That patience is the key to the consistency that his listeners get when they see his show or throw on his record. It’s not about quantity it is all about quality.
Nowadays Isakov is mostly listening to the people he plays with. At his shows he will always introduce his band members as his best friends, all of whom have their own music that they are creating in one way or another. The group has two albums that are in the works, one being a live recording with the Colorado Symphony that should be out this December.
For anyone who is on the fence about seeing one of their shows for whatever reason, they are a must see. Out of all the concerts I have been to in my life I don’t think I have ever come across a band that connects with the audience on such a personal level. One of the most poignant examples of this is something Isakov has lovingly dubbed “the nerdy folk moment.” Inspired by the frustration with amplifiers and microphones, at some point during the show, if the venue is the right size, the group will unplug all of their instruments, walk to the front of the stage away from the mics and just play out to the audience. With nothing between us and the group, there is a tangible connection that one rarely finds in concert halls these days. “There’s all these things between the songs and the audience that can get in the way, when we just say fuck it and unplug then we can at least connect in a real way.” The intimacy that something like that provides speaks volumes to the kind of artists that these guys really are. When they play a show they want the audience to connect to the music as much as possible, and this is one of the most effective methods I’ve ever seen to accomplish that.
Luckily for you all some hero has posted a video of them playing “Saint Valentine” during just such a moment. Here you go, enjoy.