By Zane Fletcher, Culture Editor
At first, there was soft acoustic folk—a cellist; a guitarist with a soft, crooning voice; an electric guitar player who interchanged a banjo; and a violinist. About a minute into the first song,the audience was hit with a percussive bass drum, a driving beat that permeated through the show. The audience loved it, and the band derived their energy from it—and what an energy it was.
After a surprisingly beautiful performance from opener and solo guitarist Nathaniel Rateliff,the sold-out, sardine-packed audience at the Waiting Room was perfectly primed for the main event. On Thursday, Jan. 16,Gregory Alan Isakov delivered.
Using a drummer they had met the previous day, Isakov’s band was high-energy and cohesive—not surprising considering South African-born and Colorado-based Isakov’s tangential story about their close friendship. Interestingly, at one point, Isakov lived in a building with cellist Phil Parker upstairs. Violinist JebBows worked as the building’s maintenance man and a former drummer lived down the street.
Notably, Bows danced around the stage, feeding off others’ energy while doling out his own in copious quantities. At the end of two particularly high-intensity songs, the aptly-named Bows had to pull a few strands of the hair off his bow because he had fiddled so intensely.
The quiet stoicism of the lead singer and namesake of the band was compensated for over-abundantly by his bandmates. Interestingly, Isakov’s closed-eyed, soft persona disappeared in between songs and instead his upbeat and intelligent personality shone through. This was in direct contrast to the doleful messages of a good amount of his songs.
Isakov joked with the crowd in between pieces, at different times lauding them for their attention and telling them to “shut the f—up” (jokingly, of course). Isakov even mentioned his last concert in Omaha, also at the Waiting Room, after which his band (after consuming intoxicants) went into the street outside the venue to light off fireworks.
Isakov was exceptionally creative in his delivery. For at least half of his set, the drummer sat to the side in the lighting booth while Isakov and his accompanists—the electric guitar changed for a banjo—moved to the front of the stage and surrounded a single microphone. The quartet proceeded to play a number of songs in this arrangement, and, despite the lack of the driving bass drum, they succeeded. Isakov brought two different bands with him to the Waiting Room. One was the bass drum-driven, upbeat folk-rock band that amped up the energy in the crowd, while the softer, acoustic set featured the previously mentioned single microphone, as well as Isakov solo, and Isakov with his band on backup vocals. No matter how Isakov positioned his troops, the audience ate it up, hooting and hollering after successful song after successful song.
A special moment in the show was when Isakov directed the stage lighting director to shutoff all of the house lights for “The Universe.” In the dark, the audience was able to simplyf ocus on the message of Isakov’s song, equal parts eco-anthem and love ballad. “The Universe, she’s wounded, she’s got bruises on her feet,” he sang. In the darkness, the words shone through, revealing Isakov’s true poetic ability.
Isakov’s show ended, in truth, before much of the audience was ready for it to. His resultant encore filled the audience’s still-hungry senses as the band returned to their one-microphone setup for the ever-popular “Suitcase Full of Sparks” and his folk-gospel (written in the back of a van) “Bullet Holes.” For his second show in Omaha, Isakov greatly succeeded. His juxtaposition of high-energy and slow emotionality was the perfect mixture for the crowd, who was sold from the first bass drum kick. Isakov’s musical journey, partially driven by audience requests, was perhaps accidentally engineered, yet could not have succeeded more.