Gregory Alan Isakov, a South African native and farmer on the side, sold out the Royal Oak Music Theatre on March 21 with his own brand of bittersweet, nature-knowing folk rock, making meaning out of broken bottles and every blade of grass.
Indie artist Joe Purdy opened the night with a captivating stage presence laced with endless quips about upsetting his mom, marijuana and math. The first two tracks of his set, “New Year’s Eve” and “Kristine,” spoke candidly, establishing his lyrical mastery with lines like “power means nothing in a world without love,” and the universal musings of “maybe I’ll change the world / just like my momma said / maybe I’ll just get stoned / and call Kristine.”
Purdy centered gratitude and earnestness in his set, thanking the stage crew and the audience often. The singer-songwriter’s folk roots shone through his impressive ad-libs and acoustic bridges, which built back roads and filled the metropolitan theater with country skies.
After a tastefully arranged transition, the stage fell black, with only the bass drum lit and shining like a blood moon. Isakov and Co. found a lively audience, cozy enough to fill the pit but intimate enough for motivated attendees to make song requests (which they did). The set included a rendition of the somber “San Luis,” accentuated by violin strings, which fell into a showcase of violinist Jeb Bows’s virtuosity.
Isakov teased that “Dark, Dark, Dark” would be the happiest song of the set before his self-authored tune was enhanced by the ensemble, creating a performance so seamless you’d think it was orchestrated by figures held on the same puppet strings.
The headliner explored his discography with the self-titled track on This Empty Northern Hemisphere, putting the concept of genre to shame as symphonic strings brushed against earthy chords and higher ideas of kingdoms and universes were accompanied by drums that reminded the audience of the ground beneath their feet.
Isakov’s gift for poetry lingered in lines about queens, caves and coffee cups. The Weatherman’s “Honey, It’s Alright” and “She Always Takes It Black” hold wisdom like “I’ve heard the road to every truth/ It’s just a cul-de-sac.”
The album’s masterpieces were further explored with a bolder version of “Amsterdam” and “Second Chances,” the latter laced with harmonic chords and analogies sitting atop gentle, patient chords.
“Caves,” a relatively upbeat track off Isakov’s latest release, Evening Machines, rang around a grounding rhythm and led into an extended singalong of the closing line, “let’s put all these words away,” before the band returned for an encore.
Isakov’s crowd favorite, “Stable Song,” was complete with string solos that confirmed each musician’s mastery in a tune soft enough to be a lullaby and sage enough to be a fable. Purdy joined Isakov and Co. for the set’s final two songs, “Saint Valentine” and “All Shades of Blue.” The closing tracks were littered with expressions of loneliness and love.
Isakov’s voice, worn with experience and sweetened by sunshine, remained matter-of-fact and marvelous throughout the show, gently channeling feelings of nights that ache, the silence that follows and winds that confess atop acoustics that embraces the essence of his artistry. He shared this endless, raw similitude of sorrow and solace in every strum.
Statement Writer Leah Leszczynski can be reached at email@example.com.