The Vicarious Landscapes of Gregory Alan Isakov’s Band

EDOUARD DE BRAY attends Gregory Alan Isakov’s concert at Camden’s Roundhouse and reviews his 2023 album Appaloosa Bones.


Gregory Alan Isakov brought Indie-folk monism to Camden’s Roundhouse on the evening of Saturday 25th November. With choruses fused by a synergetic multi-vocal backing and a myriad of country-folk instruments, Gregory Alan Isakov isn’t just a person, but the stage name for a group of apolaustic performers: a collection of rural-Indie polymaths mastered in violins, cellos, basses, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and even revamped banjos. Behind this thicket of strings coxed a laconic drummer’s rhythmic pulse. Six people, twenty instruments, one name, an unadulterated seam.


Former railway turntable turned subtle temple of the arts, the Roundhouse has welcomed many coveted musicians over the years, from Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan. The panopticon-styled venue has been noted for its unique acoustics, owed, in part, to its oval-shaped high ceilings – something which Isakov’s open soundscapes were quick to take advantage of. But the Roundhouse is not just for the musically inclined; in the 60s, the venue saw the launch of several underground newspapers, consolidating it as a polymorphic stage for the rebellious, genre-defining, and countercultural. Though Isakov is far from countercultural, his variant of indie-folk is unique in its own right, his songwriting as bucolic as you’d expect the traverse down a river. Some parts flow faster, others more languorously; some songs are delicate, others waltz into an electric guitar shibboleth. Still, they remain unified by the same meandering pulse.


Take Zack Bryan’s Burn, Burn, Burn’, blended with Noah Kahan’s ‘Stick Season’, sprinkled with some Damien Rice and infused with the strum of a Bon Iver guitar, and you might get somewhere near Isakov. Though, I doubt it.


Isakov was in town to promote his newest album, Appaloosa Bones. Drawing on his time in West Texas, Isakov’s first album since 2018 takes on a more ‘lo-fi’ approach than his previous. The musician describes its ‘silver tones’ as being ‘doubled, amped and kind of dirty’, mirroring his jagged, rural surroundings. The record begins with a classical piano intro in ‘The Fall’, then expands into a piston hiss percussion, banjo riff and falsetto vocals, creating a soundscape that once again echoes the wide-open space of West Texas – an earthy crescendoing, sonically sustained throughout the album.


Despite the multidimensional opuses of the album, there were moments of Isakov’s performance where the audience was provided with a reminder of his singularity as a performer. Isakov, illuminated by iridescent light, would begin another song with a preluding melody from his harmonica. An intro, an interlude, an homage to Dylan – vestige of the venue’s bygone era.


When Isakov first waded onto the stage, being only a nascent follower, I was forced to review my preconceptions. Out of the curtains emerged a mature figure, more learned and sensuous than many of his genre’s more youthful performers. The latter often characterised as ragged and loose, Isakov appeared instead clean shaven, clothed in denim and sleek cowboy hat, his welcoming monologue said with a warmth illustrative of the comfort of his own company.


To my right, a group of modern hillbillies on something hard, consumed in a tamed frenzy. I watched as their limbs moved sporadically around the crenellated ellipsis they had formed since it first kicked in, on their way, I suspect, to a distant cosmos, lulled by the pulse of Isakov’s music.


After sieving through the set list – a collaboration of old and new you’d expect from a touring new album – he announced his premature departure. A rushed goodbye the audience knew not to buy. Two of his biggest hits had been left. The loudest applause of the evening accompanied by the stamping of those in the upper decks urged the band members back onstage. They returned, with traces of the Old Testament, two by two to the ship for four more songs. A duo for the first, ‘Before the Sun’, before bringing all the members back together for his second biggest hit, ‘Amsterdam’. Then, with the six of them squeezed in symphony, like a group of amiable buskers, there suddenly came the last strum, stroke, pick, pluck, pulse, as though the two and a half hours had been lived in a somnambulist’s dream.


Featured Image courtesy of Edouard De Bray.