Thursday, April 16, 2015
Port City Music Hall, Portland, Maine
I stumbled upon Gregory Alan Isakov almost exactly six years ago when he opened for Brandi Carlile at South Portland High School. I caught him in Portland again in 2011, but have missed him since then, so was really excited to finally see him live again. My sweetie was able to meet me in Portland and we had a perfect Portland date night—drinks at The North Point, a delicious dinner at Empire, and a cup of coffee before the show where we met up with my steadfast concert friend Colin.
I have a pretty firm rule that I always get to a venue early and grab a spot up close and catch the opening act. Following that rule has been abundantly fruitful, as many of my current favorites are people I first saw as a show opener (Glen Hansard and Brandi Carlile are both good examples). Thursday night, getting to Port City Music Hall early for the opening act didn’t pan out for me because I thought they were terrible. People ask me all the time if I write bad reviews and I usually don’t have only bad things to say about a performance, but this was an exception. Jolie Holland and a guitarist “opened” the show—they bantered with each other awkwardly but mostly ignored the crowd, and she turned her back on the audience and away from the microphone after each song. I didn’t like their mumbled, slightly out of tune songs and their stage presence was ghastly. I was floored when Gregory invited her back out later in the show to do a song together and he spoke about how blown away he was by her when he first saw her live.
Gregory Alan Isakov (GAI) and his band took the stage close to 9PM and the crowd was ready for him (I’m definitely not the only one who struggled through the opener). I was very happy to see Jeb Bows on fiddle. I’ve seen him play with Brandi Carlile and her band a number of times, but didn’t know (and Colin told me) that Jeb’s home is with GAI. He has a ton of stage presence and really wails on his instrument and such fun to watch. My sweetie has a music background and intended to go into performance as a career, so I was delighted to see the huge smile spread across on his face right from the start when GAI opened with “Monsters” (check out this new song backed by the Seattle Symphony). The fullness of sound those five people (four on strings and a drummer) made together was gorgeous. Gregory’s voice is simple and clear and his folk songs are pretty and evoke times gone by. His songs are brought to their fullest with the addition of strings, harmonies, percussion, and an occasional banjo accompaniment.
I suspect Gregory Alan Isakov is a good guy. I was impressed by how little he put himself in the spotlight (literally, too, when you look at where he’s standing in my photos). He spoke about everyone in the band warmly throughout the night. We sang happy birthday to cellist Phil Parker. They played a lot of Gregory’s 2013 album, The Weatherman, but didn’t leave out 2009’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere and I was so happy to hear “This Empty Northern Hemisphere,” “That Moon Song,” and “Dandelion Wine” live.
Most of the band left the stage at one point and Gregory and Steve Varney played “The Stable Song” off of their 2007 release, That Sea, That Gambler. It was beautiful. Soon after, Gregory crossed something off his “list of things to accomplish that people make at the new year” and instead of “growing a scary beard” or “standing up on a surfboard,” he had his “gospel moment” when everyone gathered around one microphone and accompanied him on “Honey, It’s Alright.”
This was one of those special shows that I didn’t want to end. Gregory Alan Isakov and his band are an absolute pleasure to see live. Thanks for hosting a wonderful night, Port City Music Hall!