Okay, so I realize this review is almost two weeks after the fact, but a show like this requires a lengthy processing period. That, and the fact that really good live music clearly inhibits my ability to speak or write coherently.
I’ve seen Gregory Alan Isakov (GAI) perform once before, in 2015, at Benaroya Hall with
the Seattle Symphony. I sat in the fifth row, silently crying with two thousand strangers, singing every word (“OH CHURCHES AND TRAINS… THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME TO ME NOOOOOWWW”) and after, I waited, staring at my Converse in the elegant Grand Lobby, just to make a fool of myself asking for his autograph (see attached picture—it still makes me giddy). So you can probably imagine how excited I was when GAI announced the release of his new album, Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony, a collection of favorite songs from his last three full-length albums with orchestral arrangements (plus a new track called “Liars”).
The opener was Andrea Gibson (also known as Andrew Gibby). They are an award-winning spoken word poet—the first winner of the Women’s World Poetry Slam—who resides in Boulder, Colorado. Their poetry focuses on a variety of social justice issues like gender, race, class, love, sexuality, and even their dog, Squash. Gibson brought out singer-songwriter Jesse Thomas who covered Bon Iver’s “Flume” as Gibson eased into their four poem set.
I’m not a poet. I can’t pull metaphors out of thin air, and I sure as hell avoid disclosing my feelings and emotions at all times, but Gibson’s words had me, someone with very limited romantic experience, missing that girl who got away or that I left out of fear to save her from my crippling depression and ragging alcohol dependence, etc. It’s heavy stuff! Gibson has a way of reeling the listener in with vivid images of the darkest parts of humanity, the parts we never disclose, and then suddenly gives the line some slack with a well placed joke. Even if you don’t think you enjoy slam poetry, I highly recommend you see Andrea Gibson if you ever have the chance. Your heart will be sent through a paper shredder, fished out of the bin, and put back together better than before, with a few pieces of scotch tape.
Next, GAI took to the stage scattered with illuminated globes, along with guitarist/banjo-extraordinaire Steve Varney, to perform two unreleased tracks “Desdemone” and “Buried in the Waves” (hinting at a new album in the works, *cue high-pitch shrieks*). These two songs were very reminiscent of Isakov’s classic sound; poetic lyrics imbedded in stripped down instrumentals. The Ghost Orchestra and the rest of his band came out (John Paul Grisby on bass and Jeb Bows on violin), and they all launched into tracks from the new album.
There’s an art to arranging contemporary music with a full orchestra. The result can be completely overwhelming, disjointed, and distracting if done poorly, but it can also be the most breathtaking thing you have ever heard or felt, like the moment you hit water diving into an ice cold mountain lake; the rush and shock, a quick contraction in your chest, leaving you gasping. There’s a section towards the end of the song “Amsterdam” where the orchestra crescendos and the French horns break through the strings that had me feeling like my body was rising above the crowd. Everyone in the pit was singing along and I kept looking at my friend, Claire, trying to convey how much I loved being there, in that moment, with her, someone who loves this artist just as much as I do, if not more.
Towards the end of his set, Isakov mentioned that, while unloading their van, a stranger asked what kind of music they play, to which he didn’t quite know how to respond. He ended up saying that they play “sad songs about space,” a pretty apt description of his music. This led into a special moment when he asked for all the lights to be turned off, leaving only the globes glowing, to play “The Universe,” a song off his 2013 release The Weatherman, saying we all “deserve a song in the dark.”
A spoken word poet, an orchestra, and a folky singer-songwriter all added together made for a breathtaking, tear-inducing, genre-fusing concert that reminded me just how powerful a somatic experience live music can produce. Also, I think everyone needs to see Jeb Bows, the violinist, going nuts, hopping around during high-strung (pun intended) instrumental moments. It was one of the purest expressions of happiness resulting from music I have ever seen. I’ve attached a photo of the set list (yes, I asked for the set list, stop judging me) just so you can all see the quote included on the bottom, showing the kind soul of this amazing artist.
My only complaint about this show was the venue. A concert like this needs better acoustics than what the Showbox has to offer.
EMMA PIERCE | In All My Plain Jane Glory | KXSU DJ