As I stride between 4th and 5th Ave alongside the Ryman’s signature stained glass, I believe for the first time this year that it is undoubtedly fall. A cool and clear Friday night, I’m surrounded by fellow folk fans donned in yellows, florals, reds, and flannels. I myself am cozily enclosed in my mother’s thin orange sweater, and I’m pleased that we’re all on the same page attire-wise.
Walking through the doors, I hear Lucius’ opening act drifting lightly into the lobby. After I’ve found my seat, I see that they’re doing what any good opener should: chipping away at our defenses, getting our heartstrings accustomed to the tugging they’ll be subjected to for the rest of the evening. As the atmosphere grows into one of collective vulnerability, I can’t possibly imagine what I was put on this earth to do but sit in this pew and listen to these women hum.
That’s what is so interesting about the Ryman: there’s no room for barriers. We’re all together. Our seats – pews leftover from the building’s years as a church – provide no boundary between individuals. The venue’s design forces the audience to grapple with the fact that music is meant to be shared.
Gregory Alan Isakov makes his entrance to the sound of birds softly singing. His face is, of course, hidden by the shadow of his fedora. Images of the night sky are projected behind him and as he begins to sing, my heart starts to beat with his voice. The visuals show subterranean layers of the earth, and I wonder if that’s where his sound comes from. It’s warmer than the recordings can do justice, like a beacon of sound.
Isakov counteracts Lucius’ sense of removal from the crowd. As lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig stood facing each other amidst a sea of candles, it felt like I was witnessing something vulnerable and private. Yet Isakov’s band forms a wide semicircle around him and I can’t help but feel that we, the audience, are meant to complete the shape. They wordlessly invite us to be not observers in this experience, but participants. The crowd, however, is content to sit in the pews quietly and listen.
Fortunately, Isakov and the band are unfazed by the shy crowd. Their energy remains constant and I get the sense that their music is a living thing, a flame the musicians are all nursing at once. The more I listen, the more I understand that this isn’t an individual with a backup band, it’s a group. With pianist Steve Varney giving cues with his facial expressions and Jeb Bows leading seamless violin transitions between songs, together they channel something deep and hollow.
The group returns for the encore in a small cluster, sharing a single microphone as they pass the melodies around. Percussionist Max Barcelow even whistles for a few bars, which earns him some sarcastic comparisons to Andrew Bird by his bandmates. At last, the stage clears to Varney and Isakov, who wrap up the event by playing some older songs from their 2007 release, That Sea, The Gambler.
As I’m whisked out of the venue, I feel reinforced. I feel the layers of earth beneath the concrete. I feel the stars above the city lights. In a performance both soporific and contemplative, Gregory Alan Isakov reminded me, and hundreds of others that, no matter how quiet we may be, we are a part of something.
Listen to Gregory Alan Isakov’s newest album, Appaloosa Bones, here: