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Friday, 18 May 2012 15:20

Concert review: Gregory Alan Isakov (with Geoff Koch) satisfies hearts, minds and ears at the Old Rock House, Thursday, May 17

Gregory Alan Isakov Gregory Alan Isakov / Tim Ferguson
Written by Will Kyle
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On Thursday night, Gregory Alan Isakov performed a well-attended show at the Old Rock House. Behind him stood a projected, sepia-tinged, photo depicting a rural youth listening intently to a large, conical, medieval-looking, horn-shaped hearing device.

The image struck me. It seemed an apt metaphor for Isakov and his music. He is the youth, or rather, his art is, and like the image, representative of life's constant search, of its hunt for that elusive melodic force that haunts us as it flits between the trees, lost to wind and distance.

Like a sound adrift on the wind, Isakov's music never settles, never sits contentedly while life chugs on by. No, Isakov's catalog warms the soul with rustic literary intimations steeped in American melancholia.

Geoff Koch opened the evening with a set of tunes that reminded me of a subdued version of Two Gallants, perhaps because of Koch's propensity for stacking phrases and melodies. The crowd enjoyed Koch's sometimes brazen and folky but always deeply introspective ramblers.

Soon after, Isakov took the stage along with cellist Phillip Parker and violinist Jeb Bows. The trio slipped into the quiet, but happy "Virginia May," from 2009's "This Empty Northern Hemisphere." While the female backing vocals and brushed drums of the studio version were missing, the warm starkness the violin and cello afforded the songbed made it feel full nonetheless.

"Big Black Car" was bursting with dulcet care and dark whimsey. The parts book-ending the chorus were pure delicious harmony coupled with Isakov's trademark "Mmmhmm's." The unreleased "The Universe" found Isakov singing into a second microphone with an AM radio-style, treble effect, which lent the track a gothic, M. Ward-esque feel.

Everyone stood stone still for "The Stable Song" from 2007's "The Sea, The Gambler." Isakov leaned hard on the vocals, squeezing every ounce of the emotion available from the melody. Bows flipped his violin sideways and plucked the strings to imitate the sound of a mandolin crossed with a banjo. Parker pulled his bow across his cello strings, encouraging thick thrums of sonic energy to loll forth like a lion's tongue.

Isakov performed "3 AM" solo. Under dimmed house lights, it was as if the artist was speaking personally to each of us, while simultaneously somehow addressing everyone. The multi-gamut aspect sent satisfied tingles coursing up and down my spine as Isakov fell into the craw of another cyclically melodic choruses.

The audience let out a happy sigh when the band returned to join Isakov for "Red and Gold." The song did not feature the bluegrass flavor found on other versions, but did possess a dusky ochre that lent the song a particular smoothness. Isakov again employed the trebly, AM-radio microphone effect during the song's turn around and sang: "There was you, crimson running through your veins."

Isakov dedicated "Liars" to his tour manager and began the tune with his trademark vocal effect coupled with palm-muted guitar. The song remained in a resolutely diminished mode, until, toward the end, when it exploded forth with dynamic, rhythmic string work. I immediately understood why Isakov doesn't employ a drummer: There is no need.

"Dandelion Wine," was robust, yet somber and lovelorn. During the Ray LaMontagne-tinged "That Moon Song," Isakov told the crowd, "She pulls on this heart like she pulls on the sea," again utilizing his trebly, microphone effect.

During the encore, Isakov offered up a new, unreleased song (let's call it "I'll Feed Your Horses"), which concerned the feeding of Brandi Carlile's horses. Before he started, Isakov prefaced, "We [the band] don't know if it [the song] is going to live very long," and let out a sinewy guffaw.

Isakov finished his encore with the more serious "If I Go, I'm Goin'," which started out serenely empty except for the troubadour’s light strumming, which, by the end, morphed into a powerful roar that closed out the evening with energy and gusto.

Isakov humbly introduced his band, gave a bow, and descended from the stage before heading to the merch table to receive his fans, who were eager for pictures, signatures and handshakes.

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