Graffiti. Punctuated | Live music. In London.

Gregory Alan Isakov: Hope was a letter I never could send


Gregory Alan Isakov | Eventim Apollo | 26 November 2016

It’s almost obligatory for the headliner to thank their support act. But Passenger, clearly impressed by Gregory Alan Isakov, goes a step further. He’s worried about being upstaged by the man he picked to open his run of UK shows.

“I’m kind of regretting it,” he adds, jokingly.

There’s nothing to regret, though – apart from the customary 30-minute length of Isakov’s slot. Although, to his credit, that’s ample time to win over an already almost-full Hammersmith Apollo; by the end of his first song – the mournful ‘She Always Takes It Black’ – the Johannesburg-born, Colorado-based musician has the undivided attention of nearly 5000 people who aren’t even there to see him.

On stage alone, the singer-songwriter is clearly impossible to ignore, the poetry of lyrics like “You search the world for the milk of the pearl/ She always takes it black” only amplified by the sparse accompaniment of guitar and, occasionally, harmonica (his “band for tonight”). Without the fiddle, cello, banjo, bass, and drums that flesh out his studio recordings and full-band live shows, comparisons with early Dylan and ‘Nebraska’-era Springsteen are inevitable – and fitting – as the accomplished storyteller reinterprets the finest, most lyrical, moments of his albums ‘That Sea, The Gambler’, ‘This Empty Northern Hemisphere’, and ‘The Weatherman’.

Like the angelic ‘Big Black Car’ (“You were a phonograph, I was a kid/ I sat with an ear close, just listening”) and Ron Scott’s ‘Liars’, which he’s made his own and, tonight, performs with such passion that he punctuates its seismic crescendo with foot stomping.

By the end of Isakov’s all too brief performance he’s leading the crowd through a singalong of “let’s put all these words away” from an equally dynamic and powerful song that, like a microcosm of his entire set, glides easily between quiet, beautiful restraint and unbridled, glorious joy.  

“When you go to a gallery, there’s not a guy who says ‘Look at my weird drawings for 30 minutes,” Isakov muses at one point. “But I’m really glad that, in music, there’s an opening act.”

Passenger, and all 5000 people who’ve come to see him, certainly agree.