Saturday, 27 July 2013

Gregory Alan Isakov july 2013

Gregory Alan Isakov + Lakes of Canada  |  Petit Campus

                                                 PHOTOS  |  VALERIA VEGA

I walk into Petit Campus solo. Waiting in line with me are pretty girls next to tall men with hats. There are groups of friends exclaiming stuff, exchanging sawed-off double barrel shotgun blasts of laughter. They’re doing that swatting snappy thing with their hands I could never figure out. Some older women are on a girls’ night out, already dancing in the line, no actual music currently playing. The faces here are painted with something that looks like elation; no one seems to care that it’s Monday. I hear Lakes of Canada’s lead singer explaining to the crowd what’s about to happen. I am sweating, and slightly late.

I get all stamped up and activate a radar: Bar, bar... where is the BAR?

Bar located. Lakes of Canada’s Jake is lecturing the crowd on a partial sing-along. He is assuring us that the chords are real easy, that we need no Pavarottian range to get it done. He tells us we are to chime in with an “Ouuu, ou-woo-ou-wouuu, ou-woo-ou-wouuu...” and so on, during the chorus. I will not be doing this.

They kick the song off and my eyes roll back down. These guys are good. Pixie dust bursts out of the keys and into the crowd during the piano intro. I catch some of it in my mouth and it sweetens up the Stella pretty nice. I stick out my tongue for some more but none of it comes my way. I ask the barmaid if she happens to have any pixie dust for sale back there. She says, “Quoi?” Jake comes in right on time, his voice tender and earnest, as though we are his children and he is teaching us a valuable lesson through the somnolent power of lullaby. He directs us into the chorus and there is scattered but vast ouing and wooing going on, swooning and seamless. Those who join in seem to have done this before. I’ll admit, the aesthetic of the thing is kind of sweet, but I do not partake. I am an obelisk, a towering pinnacle, stoic and unpandering, and the flag billowing in the clouds at my peak is my own.

The last of the woos diminish into silence and Lakes of Canada segues into its next song. This time the keyboardist is set on an accordion-based synth. She lets her fingers relax on the keys a little longer. The mood conveyed is rainy and a little sad. Guitar man comes playing in a scale that must be Indian, the intervals sounding angry. I don’t know whether to be sad or angry here, so I drink. Jake comes in, right on key (these guys are good, really), and this time there is a sharp corner to his voice, a justice-seeking growl that was not there before. It seems as though the voice is coming out of his beard instead of his mouth; the beard is angry, having been oppressed for so long. I see this man and his beard leading a gang of street rioters marching for justice, wielding guitars as weapons, playing their anthem in unison before smashing their wood and steel over the heads of the Cabal. I become angry. I think of the oppressors, the goddamn oppressors. Who do they think we -- okay that’s enough.

Aside from an impressive range of songwriting format, what Lakes of Canada exhibit on stage is passion. Sweat beads form on each of their foreheads, the lucid kind of sweat caused by something other than heat. Not a note was missed by any of them, this either being the product of hours of blindfolded practice or an innate musical ability to entertain. They unplug themselves for their last song (except for the guitarist, who takes hold of the mic for beatboxing purposes) and migrate to the center of the crowd. The stage is now vacant, the band just people in the crowd who happen to be making some music. It all gives Petit Campus the grimy air of a block party. The song itself is minimal, modern and reeks of soul, like James Brown in need of a shower.

Then dispersal. Pats on the back. “You guys were great.” lead to 
“Thank you, thank you.” 


The bar here has no seats and seems to be one of those non-chilling bars, here for you to order your booze and flock off. It’s one of those roughly finished aluminum bars that I awkwardly set up camp on because I am alone, the place is packed and there is nowhere for me to rest my stuff on and write. The people are being herded by the bright lights of intermission toward the bar. Before I know it I am dodging cash-clutching hands and muttering apologies while averting anything that looks like an eye. The sweats break out. It’s the middle of Summer and I’m wearing a black hoody, the thick Indonesian kind, from H&M. This sweater was too hot for the twenty-eight degree weather outside and it is definitely too hot for this place, with its flaccid excuse for air conditioning and masses of increasingly tipsy people exhaling hot fumes from stomachs boiling with beer. Seconds take a long time to pass as my black sweater darkens. Elbows and triceps come at me left and right. The busboy is a massive bulldog and I think he’s snarling at me. I consider moving, because that would be the human thing to do, but then I remember that I am not a human, but an obelisk. Obelisks don’t move. Obelisks stay. And so I, too, then, stay - an obstacle, an obelisk. Take it!

The intermission ends. Petit Campus dims all around and I thank God (who right now is the man in control of the lights) for lack of light. Gregory Alan Isakov comes before us, beardless and beret-ed.

I’d done some quick youtube-ing of the man before the show and, though thoroughly unwowed by the all-too-familiar folkish musicality, I found myself ogling over his voice while pacing alone in my apartment. It sounded like he’d been abducted by aliens and was taught transcendental, 4th dimensional singing secrets, returning to Earth with what he learned, except we weren’t ready to hear such a voice untethered so he vowed only to sing with a very old penny under his tongue. Does that make sense? Probably not. He’s a good singer. There is a certain quality in that voice. Anyway.

A banjo and cello are up there with him tonight, but they take the bench for his first song. He starts off with the acoustic play, which as mentioned is nothing phenomenal but accomplishes what it needs to. The strumming is smooth, the hammer-ons punctuate nicely. He closes his eyes in that zen musical way and starts singing. I remark that his alien voice was not a result of some sound-engineered trickery, so I raise my glass to him in salute. The man has his eyes closed and can not see me.

The song ends to uproarious applause, so loud and sudden I jump very slightly. Isakov says hi and tells us we have the most beautiful city he’s ever seen. I think the crowd knows he’s lying but they plead ignorance and applaud again, uproariously.

A tiny girls walks by. She weighs maybe a hundred pounds, but her steps shake the entire venue. I feel them in my chest even through the roar of applause. She stomps away and my pint trembles like that scene in Jurassic Park.

Aside from the cello and banjo providing ambience, the second and third songs are pretty much cut-outs of the first. I enjoyed a couple of Gregory Alan’s tracks back home, but it begins to dawn on me now that a full set from this guy might be a little daunting. As if he read my mind, Isakov starts the fourth song with some funky palm-mutes that finally convey some swing (maybe even a little bit of swag), the first hint so far of a deviation from cookie-cutter folk. There is a wailing falsetto intro that segues into apocalyptic lyrics, which is a well-needed break from the romantic stuff that filled the first three songs. A kick drum thumps, and Greg does this robotic little vocal dynamic trick where he sings into the shadow of the mic instead of the mic itself, making the moonlit tone of the song all the more ominous.

After this I get the idea that he’ll carry on in the vein of diversity, but he dives right back into the cutting of cookies and the serenading of gals. Okay, it’s all good and great, but a whole night of this? All the while my lower back and legs and gluteus maximus are tightly wound from having stood up for so long. Maybe that’s what it is, or perhaps my slavery to nicotine exceeds my pledge to journalistic integrity; it could be that I just lost that flair for folk music that prompted me to pick up my own guitar years ago, but by Greg’s eighth song I go outside to sit down and smoke. I figure that during my absence he’d sing a song about Carol-Ann instead of Suzanne, maybe plucking a G on the turnaround instead of a C. I enjoy my cigarette and the lassitude of my ass on the concrete, thinking I’d come back in and not miss much of a thing.

Sure enough, I reenter to experience the same formula of song, the same ‘You’ve got a friend in me’ vocal progressions set to stories about young love, the same banjo and cello interludes that at this point in the night have gathered dust. The same strumming of the same chords, except this time there was a harmonica. Ouf.

But I am alone here, in company and opinion. Each song dies out to that bold-chinned, bass-heavy brand of applause that hurts the hands. The majority of the crowd actually cheers, with all the volume and enthusiasm their larynxes offer, which crowds don’t do out of simple good manners. I catch a glimpse of one of the older gals I was waiting with in line, and in her left eye I see a trail of tears. Tears!

So I surmise that the problem is not him, or them. It’s me. This place is brim-packed on a Monday for this guy. People have flocked from who knows where, are giving the finger to who knows what kind of job tomorrow, to be here. And there is no trace of disappointment on any face except mine. It’s probably because the recent events in my life hadn’t been going as sexily as I would have hoped; Greg’s set bores me because I’m injustly grouping him in with the other ephemeral unsexinesses that have been going on. Maybe I’m not seeing the virtuosity on stage because I, for whatever set of reasons, am blind to it.

Greg reads my mind again and plays a song. He’s singing into the mic’s shadow. The alien with the old penny in his mouth reemerges. He talks about selling his clothes and I feel some empathy boiling -- I’ve had to sell clothes, too! A kick starts thumping, Gregory Alan Isakov starts wailing. The chords are tragic and angelic. He wails: “Now we’re just liars! Now we’re just liars!” and I hate myself for ever lying about anything. He fades the sounds down to a kill and the beauty of the silence remedies the self-hate he just breathed into me. His voice comes back in, reassuring, and the cello swoons and the harmonies thicken, and for the first time in his set I feel my head swaying, I feel unable to stop it, and I smell something cooking in the staff-only section behind the bar that can only be Lipton soup.

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