I won't lie, I was quietly impressed when I saw that Gregory Alan Isakov had sold out his concert at the Madison Theater about a week before the date. When I saw that the line of patrons waiting to get in to the show stretched all the way to end of the block 30 minutes before doors opened in 35-degree weather, I was surprised. But by the time the music got underway, I was downright uncomfortable.
I underestimated you, Cincinnati. And I think Isakov's booking agents and the Madison Theater may have, too. I don't think any of us realized how much you loved good music like Isakov's. His quiet folk ballads won't top the pop charts any time soon, but that didn't stop him from packing you all into a venue that may not have been fully prepared for you. That's not to say it was unpleasant at all. Gregory put on a great show and by all accounts and appearances, the crowd loved it. To my knowledge, no fire codes were violated. But it was tight in there. If we've proven one thing, it's that this area knows great music, and Isakov in particular will be welcome back anytime. For the crowds he commands and the acoustics his music deserves, I'd love to see his next visit to the area be booked at a venue more along the lines of the Taft or Aronoff.
But enough about the logistics. Let's talk about the music. I anticipated a satisfying show, especially with this being Isakov's last appearance before departing the US for a couple of weeks. He and the band did not disappoint, with a 19-song set that included works new, old, unreleased, and covered.
Gregory came out strong with an old favorite in “She Always Takes it Black,” quickly satisfying the eager crowd. He and the band then pulled five of the next six songs from his latest album, Evening Machines, including some of my personal favorites, “Dark, Dark, Dark” and “San Luis.” The set to this point was very well chosen and executed, but arguably predictable. So, of course, this is where things got interesting.
The next offering was an as-yet-unreleased number that appears to be titled “Soldier's Drum,” a catchy ballad that features the hook “This heart, this heart beats a soldier's drum.” After that, the 5-piece band unplugged and all gathered around a single mic for the next several songs. It's hard to increase the authenticity of music that's already being played right in front of you by live musicians, but watching the guys circled around that lone microphone felt a lot like we were witnessing a 1950's studio recording, in all the best ways.
After this, the band took a break, and opening act Luke Sital-Singh was brought on to join Gregory in a cover of Bruce Springsteen's “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” In retrospect, it's almost hard to believe he hasn't released this as a cover in the past. If you'd never heard of Springsteen before, you could easily be convinced the song is an Isakov original.
No Gregory Alan Isakov concert would be complete without “The Stable Song,” which he saved appropriately for the encore, and gave a live twist by paring down to a duet with the band's banjo player Steve Varney. The full band then gathered around for one last acoustic song to close out the show, playing “All Shades of Blue” for a crowd that was grateful for a fantastic evening and likely equally grateful to be escaping the crowd.