Photos by Ty Hyten
Hometown hero and troubadour Gregory Alan Isakov has been on near constant tour since last July in support of the critically acclaimed The Weatherman; a tour on which Isakov managed to squeeze eleven Colorado dates including last week’s string of three nights from the Springs up to Fort Collins. The connection I have with Isakov’s music sits well above that of any other artist and a chance to see him play three nights in a row was well worth the 330 miles on my old car. Adding fuel to my GAI binge was the promise of three opening sets from Nathaniel Rateliff, another cornerstone of the Colorado music scene and my music collection. I set out, camera in hand, to take in as much Gregory Alan Isakov I could before he presumably takes a break from the road in the near future and one hell of a weekend ensued.
Even after taking in seven years worth of performances from Gregory Alan Isakov, his shows have never lost their profound effect on me. This is for the same reason his albums haven’t grown old either – the visceral swell of emotion that accompanies the enveloping expanse painted by both the music and words. The hum of the strings, the gentle cry of the electric guitar and the distant brittle vibration of Isakov’s voice through a repurposed harmonica mic, all perfectly carry a sort of ship-in-a-bottle form of poetry – a transmission from another time, an unreachable place.
The first night of Gregory & Nathaniel’s mini-tour began down in Colorado Springs at the Ivywild School, a school building turned community gathering center complete with a restaurant, brewery, and music venue. A line the length of the building filled the main corridor of the 98 year old elementary school and slowly filed through the gymnasium doors.
Seated cross-legged, in accord with their surroundings, trendily dressed fans filled the dark gymnasium floor. The tiny gym, PE climbing rope still dangling from the ceiling, challenges your standard notion of a venue and is a real novelty.
A squinty eyed and smiling Nathaniel Rateliff took to the stage joined by bandmate Julie Davis without upright bass and very much with child. The two worked through a short set of sparsely accompanied songs. Rateliff’s loveable monster of a voice is best taken in with a full band and the hushed acoustic format left something in me cheering for that beast to get out of its cage. Standout songs included “Boil & Fight” and “Nothing to Show For.” Towards the end of the set, finally unrestrained, Rateliff bellowed “This wound is gonna cancel me out” on “Still Trying,” the standout song from Falling Faster Than You Can Run and the night. The dead silent audience stood in awe as he played.
As predictably and instantly as it always does, joy sank in as Gregory Alan Isakov began his set with “She Always Takes It Black.” Gregory offered a no-frills set with the songs played as gorgeously as they are presented on his albums. In fact, the one trick that the band employed throughout the three night run was the simplest of all – the single microphone. The band unplugged and gathered around a single large diaphragm cardioid condenser mic at the front of the stage bobbing in and out in the bluegrass tradition. Hushed vocals and gracefully bowed strings landed largely unamplified on my ear. While it’s hard for me to pick favorite moments of the weekend “Suitcase Full of Sparks” and “St. Valentine” played nightly in that fashion were worthy contenders. In those moments the vulnerability and warmth of the songs was very real.
“I like this one because there’s a blowjob in it” joked Gregory before breaking into a cover of his muse Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Isakov’s voice lends so well to Cohen’s songs and two more would make appearances by the end of the weekend. The regular set ended with “Dandelion Wine” and then an encore with “That Moon Song” and a beckoning of Nathaniel and Julie back to the stage. The tourmates ended the night as they would the next two, with a feel good cover of “Passing Through,” a Dick Blakeslee tune that made it’s way to Greg through Leonard Cohen. The traditional song ended each evening with the audience in harmony singing “passing through, passing through, sometimes happy, sometimes blue, glad that I ran into you.”
The second night of the three night trek northwards was a stop at Boulder’s eTown Hall for a sold-out taping of the eTown radio show. Friday marked Gregory’s fourth and Nathaniel’s second appearance on the Boulder institution which will be heard by one million listeners when it airs nationally. The program is a mix of music, conversation, and collaboration.
I have great affection for these radio tapings. There’s a lot to love in the tiny eTown Hall. The sound is as pristine as any venue I’ve ever been to, the crowds are astoundingly attentive, and the conversations pull back the curtains and give the audience a chance to experience the people behind the music.
Though Julie Davis appeared on the program it ended up only being Nathaniel in attendance. It’s hard to say what unnerved Rateliff but he began his solo set with three failed attempts to recall the opening lyrics to his song. This may have sent another artist into a spiral, but Nathaniel and his great sense of humor were able to gracefully turn things back around. He shared a number of subdued takes of songs like “Don’t Get Too Close” and the jazzy “Right On.” The highlight of set was once again “Still Trying.” The empty air after the “I don’t know’s” preceding the “a goddamn thing” was evocative and impactful.
Rateliff’s interview had the room in stitches with comments about growing up Missouri which he referred to as “the show me (how to read) state” and some self-deprecating comments about his weight. “He has a very nice speaking voice, he must be thin,” Rateliff mocked. “Sorry listeners, I’m not.”
Gregory’s set at eTown was the most mellow of the three nights. The 200 seat room was so quiet that I had to wait between songs to flip the pages of my notebook. “Living Proof” sounded ever so sweet and the vast beauty of “She Always Takes It Black” topped that of any time I’ve seen it performed live. Once again, the real show stealer was the time the band spent in front of the monitors around the lone microphone. The “oooo’s” and relaxed delivery of “Suitcase Full of Sparks” made an already intimate performance even more personal. Laughter accompanied the “St. Valentine” that proceeded with falsetto substitutions of “all messed up” for “all fucked up” for the nice folks at the FCC.
The three night run concluded in Fort Collins at the Aggie Theatre. The sold-out 650 person theater seemed to be a fitting end to his Colorado run. It was the largest venue and it was Saturday night in a college town. I had never been to the Aggie and the slovenly venue felt like more of a warehouse than a theater, with exposed spray-insulated walls, haphazardly covered in crooked concert posters like a college dorm. And just like the dorms there was no drinking allowed. The Aggie was in the midst of a brief liquor licenses suspension for serving to minors. Nothing a flask and great music couldn’t fix though.
Despite the venue being a bit the worse for wear, the show ended up being the best of the three. It felt more like a full show than the previous two nights. There was much more magic to Gregory’s set. I’m not sure if this was due to the crowd size, actual lights, the performance itself, or just the whiskey – probably a combination of all of the above. It was late on a Saturday night but the audience stood eerily quiet for both acts.
Nathaniel began the evening alone on the large stage. Rateliff is a master of dynamics, delivering poignant lyrics almost conversationally then slowly building into an explosive wail that while somber in content, brings the listener great joy. The peak of this on Saturday was “Nothing to Show For.” The song from Rateliff’s recent release was raw, charged, and simply awesome. Two other standouts were both from 2013’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run, “Forgetting is Believing” & ending once again with my favorite, “Still Trying.”
For the third night in a row, Gregory and his talented crew took to the stage in a row, with Greg’s foot pedal holding the place of a drummer. The gorgeous wave of “Amsterdam” crested and broke with the “churches and trains” crescendo at the end of the song opening that emotional space that Greg so brilliantly creates.
Phil Parker’s bowing on the cello carried us through a haunting and pulsing “This Empty Northern Hemisphere.” Saturday featured the unreleased “Liars” that slowly built up to a climax of Jeb Bows’ fiddle and Gregory’s soaring vocals that blew me away. Bonnie Paine of Elephant Revival joined the band on a number of songs, washboard on her chest for songs like “Virginia May” and a bowed saw on “Words.” There was marked chemistry between Isakov and Paine as they sang together. One of the best moments of the evening was on “The Universe” where Greg’s voice sounded distant and lonely through the tape covered green half-circle of a microphone.
Just as the two nights prior, the highwater mark of the show was the band circling around a single mic at the front of the stage in what Greg called “a nerdy folk moment.” This was nearly matched by a killer “Dandelion Wine,” which resonated with me even more than usual.
The night ended with a three song encore, 650 people singing along to “Passing Through” and a smile. In a year that I hope holds scores of concerts, this one will be a hard act to follow. For Isakov there is no rest in sight, as he’s about to embark on a 29 date, three month tour with folk contemporary Josh Ritter.