Gregory Alan Isakov steps into the light just right of center stage at the Ryman Auditorium, singing “O’ my drunken southern star, how you tried to hide in darkness.” His spotlight, we later learn, is manned by a 71-year-old lighting director who lit Dylan and Hendrix, but Gregory would rather not have anything so bright on him directly. “Slipped from orbit, now you’re dangerously close” he continues and steps back out of the light as his band, a group of guys he’ll later introduce as his oldest and best friends, swell up around the singer and launch us into the night.
“It’s such an honor to be here,” Gregory says, as the violin and an ambient wash swirl around the fans sitting in their pews. The band sews the first song, “Southern Star,” into “Dark, Dark, Dark,” another track from his 2018 album Evening Machines, and they’re off.
The seventeen songs they play throughout the night span nearly two decades of careful, thoughtful work. Collected here tonight, some Tuesday of another week, Gregory and the guys create space for the two-thousand-plus of us who parked wherever we could and made it across Broadway, through piss and cigarettes and all that inescapable Nashville noise. It’s a sanctuary of cosmic folk music presented in five distinct acts. A kind of silent movie set to a projection behind the band of a photograph of a deep, empty field leading to a giant satellite dish.
“Night comes fixing on the day, and the universe reigned again while the wheels roll, it all glows a flickering light.”
This fifth song is the title track off of the stunning 2009 release This Empty Northern Hemisphere. Unless I missed it, this is the first time the drummer, Max Barcelow, actually hits the snare with a drumstick. We’re lifted higher, reminded how special music is when everything is so carefully considered—how powerful restraint can be.
“Tell me, tell me how the hell did we get all the way up here?” Gregory sings on the next one, “Chemicals,” with the refrain: “How gravity's gone. Gravity's gone. How gravity's gone.”
The colors shift over the satellite dish—the lights come and go and they change. From Gregory leading on electric to a stripped-down stretch and then back to the full band, the field and receiver are there until the encore when the band gathers around a single ribbon mic at the front of the stage.
It wasn’t overused, but when he did sing into his second mic, an old, distorted harmonica microphone, it was like a transmission from their orbit.
For years Gregory’s songs have hit like the poetry of William Carlos Williams. In their concrete detail, palindromic truth, and the reminders that there’s no ideas but in things, no matter how simple or temporary they are.
Before the tenth song, during a quieter part of the set with just John Paul Grigsby on bass and Steve Varney on banjo and guitar, the Ryman seems to still be doing its sanctuary work. “This place is so damn cool,” he reminds us but balances it with the fact that Johnny Cash used to use the restrooms here. “He used to poop right there,” he jokes. “I’m not going to, but that’s the first thought.”
This isn’t the only levity from a lineup that’s earnest without being self-serious. The opener, Aoife O'Donovan, called Nashville out for its driving problem. Aoife, whose solo set was strong and singular, told us she’d shopped at Grimey’s and Anaconda Vintage earlier—in that part of what Nashville is now. She lamented the Brooklyn that was, the Florida (where she lives) that is, and managed a hipster dig about “taking your Toyota to a cocktail bar on Gallatin” rather than rolling to a dive bar via the public bus like she used to in New York.
After all the poetic care, all the soaring arrangements, Gregory and the band strip it down and their boots stomping on that old stage is a fitting end to the night. They returned for the encore, landing bluegrass style—smiling, trading leads on the mic for an audience finally up and out of their pews. A space had been created for us to play out our own little films, whether from the times in our lives when Empty Northern Hemisphere dropped or taking a beat to consider what we just witnessed outside—like the big, sad dude in the tight black polo marked SECURITY dragging trash cans of empties up Fourth Avenue—or what we want or have to do tomorrow.
When it’s finished, we end up outside the Ryman talking cameras. Gregory pockets two Polaroids from another photographer and asks Emma about developing film these days. “Do they still give them to you on CDs,” he asks. There’s something holy or even eternal about ephemera in the world of Gregory’s songs. Broken bottles shining just like stars—trees turning gold in the hills or diamonds turning back into coal. Or now, a quick cold beer after a great show, seeing that like the set itself, this moment is about capturing light in any setting—like even a decent camera can.
Words by Luke Wiget
Photos by Emma Delevante