Review: Gregory Alan Isakov Brings Evening Machines to a Dreamy Night at the Vic

Gregory Alan Isakov, photo credit Georgette Verdin

Listen to a song by Gregory Alan Isakov and you're likely to hear something about suitcases, gasoline, the sea, the moon, the stars-- his poetry is populated by dusty images of the pastoral and the vintage (by my approximation, magazines and the occasional Big Black Car are his most modern lyrical inventions). In the universe of albums like The Weatherman and This Empty Northern Hemisphere, the world is sepia-toned, or at least, declared by the songwriter himself, “all shades of blue;” Joy and Grief are constant bedfellows. His melodies sound like variations on the same theme, but manage to avoid staleness. These songs feel honest and lived in; lovingly used like a favorite pair of trusty workboots. Evening Machines, the latest offering from the Colorado-based folksman, continues in this vein, but with some impressive modulations. Previously it seemed the records were produced with a stress on the antique; here Mr. Isakov has his sights set on the timeless and the ethereal.

Evening Machines is as melancholic and arresting as Mr. Isakov's earlier work, but there's a uniquely expansive texture folded into his signature sound; full-bodied harmonies and ghostly echoes on album opener "Berth" and the rousing "Caves" chart exciting new territory for the workmanlike songwriter. Recorded in Isakov’s own barn-turned-studio, Evening Machines could be the perfect gateway drug for listeners late to the Gregory Alan party. It helps, too, that Mr. Isakov is an authentically modest performer. There's nothing demonstrative or showy about his onstage presence. On Wednesday evening at the Vic Theater on Sheffield, his creamy, smoke stained vocals seemed to manifest just before the brim of his cowboy hat, which concealed a face in shadow for most of the night. Against a backdrop suggesting iconography from his last three studio records (the stars and comets from Northern Hemisphere, a satellite as a stand in for The Weatherman's balloon, an endless field lifted from Evening Machines) the artist, accompanied by an exquisite backing band, wove a patchwork of old songs and new in a set list as well-crafted as his thoughtful albums. As farmer, poet and balladeer, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Isakov living an idyllically romantic life; he confessed to the audience that he doesn't talk much and infrequently watches the news (except to hear important things, like the death of Leonard Cohen). The few moments of commentary from the soft-spoken singer were all the more enlightening because of this, like the bit of context divulged for the song "Master and a Hound": Mr. Isakov was gifted a snow-globe in San Francisco, and stared at the novelty item for a few days until he was struck with inspiration. And during his solo-set, he allowed his voice to fly high like the birds he name-drops on occasion; hearing his impressive range and technique is disarming because of his usual restraint. He uses his voice like his instruments like his words: All in service of the song.

It occurred to me, at a moment when the artist was onstage alone, bathed in a purple-hued spotlight and delivering a particularly moving bit of verse, that Mr. Isakov has inherited the torch from not just the long line of folk heroes (sure he owes as much to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake as he does to Elliot Smith and Bruce Springsteen) but from the ilk of the traveling songman himself; in that moment the grand tradition, from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seger to the long forgotten singing cowboys, seemed unadulterated and unbroken by this lone man with a guitar. With him on the road Mr. Isakov brings along a slice of the West, a picture of the past, and an echo of a time we never knew but are so hungry to recall, as he continues to stake his claim for the throne of the continuing folk-revival.

Gregory Alan Isakov continues to tour Evening Machines well into next year. The excellent "San Luis" is an album highlight.
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Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.