This past Saturday night my partner in auditory crime and I, along with two friends from Manhattan, Kansas, caught a private Gregory Alan Isakov show at Cafe Cedar in eclectic Parkville, Missouri, just outside Kansas City.
My friend has been following Gregory for some time and burned me a cd of some Isakov tracks a few days ago. After listening to Isakov in my car Saturday and then hearing him play a few feet away that night, I can honestly say there is no distinction between live Gregory and recorded Gregory. This guy is the real deal. He has a voice as full and strong and passionate as any Ray LaMontagne or Glen Hansard. Quite a few of the songs on his fourth album, This Empty Northern Hemisphere (May 15, 2009), feature pal and touring partner Brandi Carlile, who also possesses powerful pipes but never comes close to overpowering Isakov on their shared tracks.
When we first got to the restaurant Saturday night for some beer and baba ghanouj, Isakov was one of the first people to make eye contact with us. Sitting on a chair while opening act Sara Swenson warmed up, he smiled a hello at us, and I thought, "Hey, that guy looks nice." It took me a few minutes to realize who he was. Gregory was amazed when my friend told him we'd driven for two hours from Columbia just to hear him play. Not only is he an amazing singer/songwriter; he is also cool, accessible, and humble. He even gave props to local college radio station KCOU when we were describing Columbia to him. "Don't you guys have a really good local station there?" he asked. (He's visited the KCOU station in the past.) Based in Boulder, Colorado, Isakov comes through Parkville once or twice a year, thanks to growing friendships in the area, and we not-so-subtly suggested he drive an extra hour or two for a set at Mojo's or The Blue Note some time. He seemed to like the idea.
Local opener Sara Swenson set the mood for the evening with her Feistian vocals and acoustic songsmithery, backed by pedal steel guitar. She is warm, genuine, and talented... and also interested in Columbia venues. Perhaps we'll see her in CoMo in the future. Her set was low-key and cast a hushed spell over the small crowd of 30–40 people.
When Gregory sat down to play, he filled the room with nothing more than his voice and acoustic guitar, and all that mattered from then on was the music and the shivers running up our spines. His renditions of "Virginia May" and "That Moon Song"? Flawless. His Leonard Cohen cover of "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong"? Haunting. Sara Swenson yelled out a request for "San Francisco," and Isakov delivered with soul and a smile. Isakov even explained the story behind "Evelyn," his song about a disgruntled service employee, who, it turns out, is a crabby woman working in the gas station across the street from his Boulder apartment.
For his encore, Isakov played a new song that may have been about a casual affair between two friends (at least, that was my interpretation) and followed it up with (I think) "That Sea, the Gambler" (I wasn't familiar with the song, but someone requested it). My friend was hoping to hear "Idaho." In the end, we had to be satisfied with the amazing show we'd just seen in an intimate setting unlike any other. (A birthday party, the event involved streamers and matching napkins; Gregory said it was the first time he'd played under a birthday banner.)
Isakov has come a long way. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and raised in Philadelphia, he's toured with everyone from Ani Difranco to Rodrigo y Gabriela and Alexi Murdoch. I haven't seen a tremendous number of shows this year, but Isakov's performance was by far one of the best. This was also the first time in my life the opening act has told me to "drive safe" when leaving a venue.
In case you aren't familiar with Gregory Alan Isakov, here's a sampling of his sublimity:
"One of Us Cannot Be Wrong"
"That Moon Song"