Saturday night, after the release of his seventh album, Evening Machines, Gregory Alan Isakov took to the stage at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. The reverent audience collectively voiced its excitement for Isakov’s set before the opening act had even performed, moving up close to the stage in anticipation of the main show of the evening.
It’s true that, upon first listen, Isakov’s music may not seem compelling enough to draw in so many people — it sounds more like something you’d expect to hear at an intimate café, sipping a latte and swaying in time to the gentle, country folk ballads that Isakov sings so beautifully. Yet his music proved to be for the masses — the entire venue was crowded enough that everyone was pressing together as they swayed.
As simplistic as Isakov’s music may appear, there is nothing undemanding about his artistry. Although he has made his name as a soloist, onstage he is anything but alone, joined by a five-piece band that supplements the guitar played by Isakov himself on his records. The vocals and lyrics are always the most important part of any Isakov song – but they would not be so beautifully highlighted without the support of the violin, cello, banjo, drums and (most dramatically) the stand-up bass.
From the moment Isakov kicked off his set with his old classic “She Always Takes It Black,” the venue was moved to an awed hush — he immediately wooed everyone with how seamlessly his songs translated to the stage. Similar to how the album versions are constructed, the live versions of Isakov’s songs prioritized his lush vocals while still making each instrument important enough to pick out individually in the sound. For a band that utilizes so many string instruments, this is incredibly impressive.
Despite Isakov’s vast discography, the recently released Evening Machines had its fair share of representation on the evening’s setlist. Isakov prefaced the performance of a new song, “Southern Star,” with an anecdote about how the song’s lyrics were written: by cutting out miscellaneous words from old romance and science fiction books and then piecing them together, à la refrigerator poetry.
And before singing the older but well-loved “Master & a Hound,” Isakov revealed — a bit bashfully — that the song was inspired by a snow globe a friend bought for him at the San Francisco airport. Then his five band members left the stage, leaving Isakov by himself to sing the song’s haunting first line: “Where were you when I was still kind?”
One of the show’s highlights was Isakov’s live rendition of “The Universe,” off his 2013 album The Weatherman. The lights were turned off completely, and in the almost pitch-black darkness, the focus was only on Isakov’s gentle vocals, distorted to lo-fi radio quality by the second microphone he often utilizes in live performances. The poetic love song to the universe — who is a “she” for Isakov — when performed so intimately was immensely gorgeous, and although many of the audience members were Isakov fans, few sang along to the popular song, too focused on enjoying the performance itself.
Although Isakov was clearly the star of the show, his band members did not go unnoticed by the audience. Jeb Bows, the violinist, was a particular fan favorite, inspiring excitement with his intense playing and simultaneous dancing in time with the songs. And when it was time for the encore, Isakov had the entire band move up front, huddling close together around the center microphone for a performance of the decade-old “The Stable Song,” off Isakov’s 2007 album That Sea, The Gambler.
With his songs that beg for deeper analysis in order to discern the real meaning behind the endless nature imagery and rustic metaphors, Isakov’s show almost felt like a poetry reading. Maybe that’s the magic of Isakov’s equal-parts country boy and lyrical master aesthetic: the utter poetry of every line he sings.