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Review: Josh Ritter, Gregory Alan Isakov

MIM, Josh Ritter, Gregory Alan Isakov, Musical Instrument  Museum, show reviewMy friend Brian and I are fans of Gregory Alan Isakov, so when we heard he was coming to Arizona (after we just missed him in September!), Brian did not hesitate to purchase tickets. Isakov was opening for Josh Ritter, who neither of us was familiar with but were still open to listening to.

When we entered the theatre, we noticed it resembled the Ikeda Theatre at Mesa Center for the Arts — very  bright with wood panelling covering the walls, and a beautiful, simple stage. Now, up until this point, Brian apologized continuously about only having bought tickets in the last row because that was all that was available for the sold-out show, but I didn’t care where I sat. The last row is not even that far away; it was still a great seat! The seats were comfy, the theatre had a nice smell and we were excited to hear how beautiful the concert was going to sound in the acoustically well-set room.

Before Gregory Alan Isakov took the stage, the theatre manager came out and addressed some notes about the venue and requested that photography only happen during the first three songs. So, when Isakov came onto the stage, everyone wanted to snap their pictures before hiding their phones.

Isakov is a small man, and I don’t say that because I was in the last row but because of how proportional he was to his guitar. When he started singing, you could feel the tingles. The room was simply the best place to hear this kind of music. After his first song, he invited a violinist and a cellist on stage to play “Amsterdam,” one of my favorites. They played and sang harmonies with him, which were pitch perfect. Isakov played a couple of songs and would comment on how awesome it was to perform with the Colorado Symphony and to tour with Josh Ritter. He played “The Universe,” which was mellow and breathtaking, and when he sang “She’s beautiful, beautiful beautiful, beautiful…” you could see in his face how much he meant how truly beautiful the universe is.

When he noticed he was running low on time, he commented, “We’re going to do some acoustic songs for you before our time is up.” I thought, Acoustic songs? Aren’t there songs already acoustic? They only had an acoustic guitar, violin, cello and three singers. No drums, no bass, no electric amplification. But then I figured out what Isakov meant. The three guys stepped  in front of the monitor wedges and surrounded themselves and their instruments around a single microphone. They sang and played and would step forward for embellishment and step back to let someone else shine for a moment. It was like how folk music was back in the day, and it was nice and nostalgic. For his last song, he said it was “a love song, so it has a lot of cursing.” He also mentioned how he knows his songs are sad and joked that he’s going to leave everyone feeling happy, to which people laughed. He ended his set with “The Stable Song,” probably one of his popular songs. When he finished, everyone cheered and it was apparent that we wanted more. Seven songs was simply not enough.

There was a brief intermission to allow transition between Isakov and Josh Ritter. When we entered the theatre for Ritter, I noticed something different about theatre shows and arena shows. When the lights dim in a theatre show, everyone quiets down, puts their phones away and directs their full attention to the stage. When the lights dim at arena shows, people cheer and scream to get pumped, probably pull out their phones to catch the artist making their grand entrance and visit with their neighbors. I was very fortunate and happy to be experiencing these artists in a theatre.

Before Ritter entered the stage, two guys in suits walked out and assumed their positions at a guitar and a harmonium. They played a few bars of introduction, then Ritter walked out and waved, and the crowd cheered. He picked up his guitar and started playing and singing with the other guys. After the first song, Brian turned to me and gave me the “he’s ok” gesture (remember, he came for Isakov). After his second and third song, Brian had warmed up to him, and I think I did too. Ritter would stay at his post and switch between guitars, while the other two guys switched between guitars, upright bass, mandolin, banjo, and harmonium. Sometimes they would leave Ritter alone on the stage to woo the audience with his stories and songs and return to add harmonies. For one song, Ritter stepped in front of the monitor wedge near the end and got down on his knees and starting howling, to which audience members started howling back. He would occasionally begin a song vigorously strumming his guitar and stamping his feet and yelling “Yea!,” as if we were in a backyard folk gathering.

Ritter’s music ranged from slow ballads to knee-slapping, toe-tapping rockabilly songs. He sang songs about love, heartache, growing up in a small town, traveling and literature. During one song, he was alone on the stage and asked the lighting crew to turn down the lights. After they dimmed them, he said, “You know what? Let’s turn them all off.” It was almost like romantic teasing back and forth– the lighting crew would slowly turn them down and stop at a certain point, and Ritter would keep saying “More. More. Off. Off. I want them off.” Finally, after the theatre was pitch black, he played a song that was even more eerie in the dark.

One thing I like about folk shows is that every song is a new story. These guys are storytellers and it’s interesting to see how they tell their story — what tempo, what intensity, what instruments are used. The room added a hint of intimacy that this show needed; you couldn’t capture a show like this at Crescent Ballroom or Rhythm Room. My only suggestion would be that Gregory Alan Isakov should’ve played more and Josh Ritter should’ve played less. But, either way, all the music was beautiful. I was very impressed with the amount of musicianship and professionalism these guys carried.

Further Reading: “Josh Ritter Talks Musical Instrument Museum, Inspiration, Karaoke”

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