2013 has been a banner year for Gregory Alan Isakov. After 2009’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere, the South African-born and Colorado-based singer-songwriter took four years to craft its follow-up, The Weatherman, which dropped this past summer. While the former is markedly excellent, the latter demands acclaim yet eludes explanation. I’ve written much about it this year already, but the record speaks for itself. Its heart-felt lyrics molded with a chamber-folk ambiance render The Weatherman a requisite listen.
Friday night brought Isakov and his four-piece backing band to Boettcher Concert Hall for a performance with the Colorado Symphony, the latest entry in the Symphony’s successful collaborative series with rock and folk musicians that includes the Lumineers and DeVotchKa. The show certainly felt like a victory lap for Mr. Isakov: a sold-out hometown stand in the midst of nationwide tour, in a year that garnered prominent features from NPR’s Weekend Edition and the New York Times, among many others. Galvanized by this success and surrounded by expertly trained performers, Isakov and his band made a concerted effort on Friday night, sounding notably more forceful than their usual calm yet disciplined delivery in a set leaning on material from The Weatherman.
Typically tranquil songs like “Second Chances” and “Dandelion Wine” were embellished with potent string flourishes from the Symphony musicians, with whom Isakov’s violinist and cellist were clearly eager to keep pace (and occasionally nab a solo from). Standout Weatherman ditty “St. Valentine” sounded uncharacteristically humongous with a xylophone-led intro and drum-filled ending. The Symphony musicians turned down the grandiosity briefly for second-set opener “Suitcase Full of Sparks” and encore “If I Go, I’m Goin’”( in which the somewhat under-utilized horn section happily took the spotlight). The highlights of the evening were the big moments: an amped-up rendition of easygoing folk tune “The Stable Song” from Isakov’s earlier catalog, the rollicking and timely “Evelyn” which allowed all involved to stretch their musical legs, and closer “That Moon Song,” which encouraged one of the at least three standing ovations of the evening. Throughout the night, Isakov radiated with a joy and appreciation exclusive to a native luminary on a triumphant return home.
For those who witnessed Isakov’s band join forces with the Colorado Symphony last Friday, it will likely prove difficult for the time being to un-wed the fantastic classical arrangements from Isakov’s Dylan-esque folk recordings. The alliance proved so natural that it was if we had come to know Isakov’s songs this way all along, yet were still hearing them in this incarnation for the very first time, an attestation to the magic of Mr. Isakov’s craft.