Live Review: Gregory Alan Isakov – Manchester Academy 3 – 09/12/2018

Last time Gregory Alan Isakov was in Manchester in 2017 it was a solo affair with no new release to champion. With Leif Vollebekk in the support slot, the evening turned out to be an incredible one full of spontaneity, performed by two gracious and talented performers. Eighteen months later Isakov has returned to the city but this time he’s here on the back of one of the best album releases of the entire year. With a barrel of new material to add to the mix, the evening promises to be a good one then!

Once again, Isakov has an impressive artist opening the show for him, but Arkansas troubadour Joe Purdy is no newcomer to the scene; he’s released fourteen albums over almost two decades, can count Star Wars director J. J. Abrams as a mate after his musical involvement in the huge television hit Lost and even has a starring role in the 2018 movie American Folk. His idiosyncratic and hugely enjoyable performance tonight is therefore indicative of the years of experience under his belt. Folk music expert Malcolm Taylor said in 2016 that “protest songs are no longer seen as an effective form of communication,” but I have a feeling he may not have seen Purdy perform. Effortlessly synergising the qualities of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan both lyrically and musically, what ensures that the result is not a diluted derivative of them both is Purdy’s authentic narratives which are laced with a healthy dose of cynicism and laugh-out-loud humour. Long introductions pleasantly meander and spiders descend from the ceiling to inexplicably interrupt his train of thought until wonderful songs like ‘Kristine’ gradually emerge from his humorous repartee and we’re treated to evocative road trips around Purdy’s mind. The crowd are clearly enthused by his amiable style and political convictions and are well up for sing-a-longs to ‘Laura Wilson’, ‘Heartbreak in the Key of Roger Miller’ and a song about nuclear armageddon. It’s a brilliant start to the evening which gets even better when Gregory Alan Isakov takes to the stage.

Evening Machines is a typically beautiful affair but it’s spiked with that melancholy murmur that is a particular characteristic of much of his canon. Released just a few months ago, it’s unsurprising that the record provides the focus for this evening’s stunning performance, although we are reminded of his impressive back catalogue throughout the night, particularly the more jaunty material from This Empty Northern Hemisphere including the wonderful ‘Big Black Car’.

Despite a malfunctioning smoke machine that belches out a relentless soupy fog, we’re treated to an impressive and atmospheric rendition of ‘Chemicals’ and ‘Dark, Dark Dark’ and these songs and the new album which they come from have clearly resonated with an utterly respectful crowd, who tenderly sing back the words to the latter adding to this wonderfully collaborative evening that Joe Purdy has initiated. The evening peaks with ‘Berth’ which addresses immigration in his home country and is swiftly followed by the enigmatic ‘Caves’. The latter’s measured rhythms on record are enhanced by a more intense and menacing accent to its crashing guitar melody, making for a particularly moody but compelling affair.

2017’s impressive solo performance was augmented by Leif Vollebekk’s return to the stage for a stunning duet with Isakov and the format is repeated, this time on a larger scale as the whole band gather around a single microphone at the front of the stage. Isakov produces his music on the same farm where he grows crops and these more intimate moments have a more organic feel to them and some in attendance would later claim that they hankered for more of this approach. This is perhaps understandable because the encore follows a similar path, reintroducing Joe Purdy as the whole band intimately gather around the microphone once again and each are allowed there particular moment in the spotlight as the warmly evocative American folk washes over us one final time.