Live Review: Gregory Alan Isakov @ The Tivoli

28 January 2024 | 12:20 pm | Liv Dunford

“Get your togs on, and let’s get munted? We’re all going to do that on the set break...”

Gregory Alan Isakov

Gregory Alan Isakov (Credit: Rebecca Caridad)

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Heatwave schmeatwave, thirty-six degrees is a rookie number in the eyes of Australian weather. Did the Bureau of Meteorology considerately issue a warning regarding the hazardous temperature? Yes. Did everyone politely close the weather app on their phone, probably whisper, “C’est la vie, I’ve got a certain Gregory Alan Isakov to see”, and make their way to the Tivoli anyway? Also, yes. Shorts and sandals, jorts and jandals – the only acceptable fashion choices when the humidity reaches the high nineties and the air becomes a wet leech that sticks to the skin. 

And so, it’s all rather fitting when Isakov and his band slink onto the stage and launch into the first song of the night, which just so happens to be the second track from his recent album Appaloosa Bones titled Before The Sun.

In an ideal world, we would’ve all made it to this venue before the sun had the chance to melt us faster than the Wicked Witch of the West, but we’re here and don’t have heatstroke, so this counts as a definitive win. And from the moment those first mellifluous notes float through the speakers, I realise with increasing awareness that it doesn’t matter I’ve stupidly opted to wear jeans; in fact, nothing matters and will matter for the next two hours except the fact his live voice somehow captures the raw beauty of emotion even more than his studio recordings (which already put most other artists to shame as it is). 

Isakov shakes his head in disbelief as if this tour wasn’t so popular it needed multiple venue upgrades and extra shows added to accommodate for the demand of the current king of modern folk. “We all come from Colorado, and we’re mind-blown you all came out for us. We feel very international, but we’re learning your language. There’s a lot of Colorado in this next song.” This next song was also track number two of one of his albums, except this time, it was his 2018 album Evening Machines

As one of his most popular songs, San Luis has been a fan favourite ever since its release, and everyone sang every word back to him even though it felt like he was serenading each person individually. With lyrics such as “cutting through the avenues, I’d always find my way to you” played against the intimate backdrop of homely woven carpets, how could one not possibly feel that Isakov was sitting by the fire in their small cabin in the woods singing straight to them? Not many people can take the blistering ferocity of Brisbane heat and make it cozy, but then again, not many people are Isakov either. 

He laughs. “We never normally do this. We’ve played with a symphony a couple of times, and it was very strict; we had to wear suits and everything.” That explains the snuggly carpets, then, a small rectangle of defiance that travels with them in the midst of a pompous and unfamiliar world. 

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Isakov then introduces the rest of the band. “These are my best friends,” he gestures to the four other multi-instrumentalists standing around him. “Max Barcelow on the drums! He’s the greatest drummer in the world, in my humble opinion… mainly because he can play with my terrible ass timing.” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “You were nice to me the other day though; you said ‘your timing is –’” 

“Elastic?” Barcelow chimes in, and everyone’s in stitches. 

Isakov grins at him. “I just think choruses should slow down. I was a horticulture major, but I’m sure they teach that in music school…somewhere. Slow. Down. Choruses.” 

Forget the terrible timing (which didn’t exist), and let’s get Isakov focusing on some terrible memory instead. “If any of you know the words to the next one, please, to God help us. I’ve messed it up every time this week. This is Big Black Car.” In perfect irony, the song he can’t remember is his most successful record to date, but no matter. Everyone naturally knew every word.  

Again, Isakov professes his gratitude that we’ve learnt comes part and parcel with his cheeky humour. “It’s mind-blowing. I’m just going to keep saying that the whole night because I know how annoying it is to leave the house and be around a bunch of strangers when it’s hot…finding a bunch of people to care of old people or little people or whatever’s going on in your life thank you so damn much.” 

“Thanks for coming, Greg!” An ocker voice screams from the pit.

He smiles. “I love that accent. I’ve been learning a few of your phrases, although I don’t think they’re real because they’re coming from my crew, who are all from Colorado… I heard ‘Let’s get munted?’” 

Everyone lost it. “YEAH!” 

The shock on his face was priceless. “Okay, apparently that’s real, what’s the other one? Oh, yeah, ‘Get on your togs?’ ‘Get your togs on, and let’s get munted?’ We’re all going to do that on the set break.” 

The entire crowd was in stitches, and Isakov stood there shaking his head, utterly perplexed. “Alright, goodbye.”

If we didn’t already believe this band was a group of best friends, we were certainly about to. Isakov went on to introduce Time Will Tell from his 2013 album The Weatherman. “This song was on a pretty big movie back home… it’s called An Amish Murder. It was on during the day… once on daytime TV, and it’s about this Amish lady that becomes a cop, and there’s a murder in the town, and she has to go back to the – are you two alright there?” 

Isakov pivots to where Barcelow and violinist Jeb Bows are giggling together behind him.

“Oh, it’s a great movie; keep telling them about it!” Barcelow eggs him on with a sarcastic thumbs-up. 

Isakov resigned and went back to his explanation. “So, she goes back to the Amish community, and there’s a murder, and then there’s this cool cop guy, and they fall in love… yeah, it’s good, it’s good,” he says as if he’s trying to convince himself more than us. 

Barcelow and Bows are still laughing, and now so is everyone else. Bands, best friends, brothers. It’s beautiful that these words are interchangeable when it comes to these guys. And it’s that passion, that familiarity they have with one another, that stays with us long into the night, well after their second set draws to a close.