Perhaps the best description of Gregory Alan Isakov’s music is the one he used at the Islington Assembly Hall on Monday night: “a bunch of sad songs about space”.
The South African-born, Colorado-based, singer-songwriter was at the end of his European tour, giving the night a retrospective ‘end-of-the-tour’ feel to it. Isakov followed a quiet set by Montreal singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk, taking the stage with his five piece band that includes a double-bassist and fiddler.
They began with ‘She Always Takes It Black’ – the closer from Isakov’s third album. The slow opener was met with a lukewarm response and a smattering of calls from the crowd for the ‘hits’ – ‘Big Black Car’ and ‘The Stable Song’ in particular.
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The band slowly worked into the night, but seemed indifferent about whether they had captured the audience’s attention. ‘Big Black Car’ brought the crowd to life and represented the heightened energy the band brought to Isakov’s mellow tunes.
Isakov falls clumsily into the broad category of singer-songwriter, but his music has elements of folk, country and the open spaces of Colorado. He looks like a musician who is truly foreign to London, and big cities in general.
There was a lot of movement on the stage throughout the gig: occasionally the band walked off stage, leaving only Isakov, other times the band gathered around a vintage microphone and sometimes Leif Vollebekk returned.
As a testament to the newly developed friendship between Isakov and Vollebekk, the pair sung a duet of ‘Dry Lightning’ by Bruce Springsteen. The singing however, was preceded by Isakov probing Vollebekk about whether he plays his new album during sex.
What stood out was how much the band enjoyed playing together. There was a genuinely friendly repertoire that lacked an urgent desire to impress the audience. Rather, it was just five guys enthusiastically playing some tunes.
Isakov told the crowd that a new record was coming, and self-effacingly acknowledged that it had been four years since the last. He said they have a lot of songs, many of which won’t make it onto the record. After playing a particularly sombre one, someone yelled: “Keep that one!”
The crowd called for an encore and Isakov gave them four more songs. The last was ‘All Shades of Blue’, which finishes with the line “let’s put all these words away”. Isakov softly strummed the line alone, in a gentle moment that could have ended the night.
He called for the crowd to sing the line, but no one did. So he continued singing it for another minute or so, joking that he would keep going until the crowd joined in. Eventually they did.