Concert Heartstrings Interview Review

INTERVIEW: Gregory Alan Isakov at the Music Hall of Williamsburg

Sunday night was certainly not the first time we’ve seen Gregory Alan Isakov perform and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, his show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg marked our 7th time seeing him live, and the 3rd time he’s agreed to meet with us so we could interview him for a feature on Heartstrings. Why do we keep coming back for more? The answer is simple. Expectations. He always exceeds them. Just when you think you’ve seen his best show yet, an epic performance takes its place and leaves you speechless. Just when you think you’ve seen and heard the most perfectly complete ensemble of best friends and band-mates around, they add a drummer who knocks your socks off with every kick, and makes your heart march along to every beat of his drum. And when you think your experience of this amazing band of musicians couldn’t have been more perfect, you notice Greg after the show, going out of his way to make himself available to meet and chat with each and every patiently waiting fan. We even saw Greg happily sign one fan’s shoe, as she rather adeptly balanced on the other foot sporting an ear to ear grin. It’s the very reason why the group of fans next to me, as I was waiting at the bar with my Narragansett before the show, toasted and cheered “To Gregory!”

The stage was covered with several area carpets, and the band was in its usual formation, with Max Barcelow on drums in the back-left corner and, from left to right, Steve Varney on banjo and guitar, Jeb Bows on the fiddle, Greg with a new hat, his old guitar and an illuminated globe behind him, and Phil Parker with his cello. It was like sitting down to a home-cooked meal, with everyone in their usual places, right where they should be, where they’ve always been. Yes, it felt like home.


The lights came on as the music started with the opening song for the evening. It was a new song, but one which within moments sounded excitingly familiar, as I realized that it was the song that Greg had played for me over the phone last September, when I had interviewed him for the first time. He said he had written it earlier that morning (see, Interview: An Afternoon with Gregory Alan Isakov). The flash back to that moment made the song even more beautiful, as I listened intently for this, now, second time. When we spoke in September, I referred to the song as “This Morning Song.” After the show I asked Gregory if he had named it yet, and he said he was thinking of calling it “Monsters,” but it’s still the song I like to call “This Morning Song.” Many of my favorites followed on this night, including “That Moon Song,” “She Always Takes It Black,” “Saint Valentine,” “Big Black Car,” “The Universe” (played in complete darkness…except for the lighted globe), “Master and a Hound”– which despite the countless times I’ve heard it, just about brought me to tears, again, as I witnessed the most intense performance to date — and the most incredible interaction between band members that I’ve seen in my life. Jeb literally shredded his bow on stage, moving in time across the stage, to meet face-t0-face with his closest friends, instruments in hand as they played and chimed together in complete synchronicity, with force, heart, and emotion that was simply spellbinding. If you know where that fine line between completely losing it and utter perfection is, this was right smack on the utter perfection side of it.


The night was not short on surprises either. At one point everyone but Greg left the stage and a shadowy silhouette emerged from the side-stage door and walked onto the stage. It was Nathaniel Rateliff. And so it was Gregory and Nathaniel now, captivating the crowd with a stunning performance of Rateliff’s “I Am” (a personal favorite).


After the encore, acoustic performance of “All Shades of Blue” (another personal favorite), we headed up to the band’s dressing room and found Jeb Bows there. Still in awe, after just witnessing him literally shred his bow on stage, and wishing to express how amazing the evening’s performance had been, Jeb, however, beat me to it and stated, with 1500+ shows behind them, this one felt like the best one yet. I would definitely agree, except that, just when you think you’ve heard the most amazing performance from this group of best friends…well, you know how it goes…we simply can’t wait to hear what’s next.

The band’s enthusiasm for each and every show is relentless and ever-growing. Greg told us that, doing shows every night, over and over again, is “The best part about it. They always feel fresh.” He’s even organized a plan to commit to 4-month-long tours, so that he can tend to his 4-acre farm in Colorado. He explains, “I’m trying this new thing out right now, with just life (laughs), I’m trying to tour during the winter and get home for the growing season, because I’m running like, four acres at home right now. And I do have some stuff during the summer, but it mellows out a lot, around mid-may. It’s been so awesome though…

…I just love feeling the musicianship getting tighter and tighter. It feels really good.”

After talking to, and meeting with Greg a number of times over the last couple of years, I’ve come to know him as a person with immense talent and equal humility. During our conversation, I shared my feelings of nervousness when speaking in front of an audience the night before at the inaugural Heartstrings concert held on April 17, 2015. When I told Greg that, I’m not a performer, and that I typically prefer to be behind the scenes, his response was simply: “Me too.” As to how he handles the nerves and the pressure of being on stage, he said, “You become cool with that kind of energy, which never goes away. I think I’ve played 1500 shows, I don’t know. My dad was just asking me, because we played in Philly and he was there, and the shows have become a little bigger than what we normally play, and he was like, ‘You had to have been really nervous tonight’ (laughs), and I was like, ‘Yeah, I was…I always am.’ But I guess I’m just more cool with it. I’m cool with being nervous. Like I know this body (laughs).” I mentioned that I’ve noticed how his audience is growing. Greg’s humble response: “For me, it’s just about the room…if the room feels musical and there’s this sweet spot of rooms…and I’ve always had a hunch–like, I know Pearl Jam misses this room (laughs). It’s just about the sweet-spot room, like Thalia Hall in Chicago… Bowery Ballroom. Whether it’s an 800 cap or 400 cap, that stuff doesn’t really matter. Some rooms are just perfect. And after you get into 2-3,000 people, there are some trade-offs, ya know, musically. I’m always more interested in the room.” And we agree. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the quality of the show for the audience, and Greg and the band exceed our expectations every time.


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