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Isakov makes the dumps sound good

Sinclair Cambridge, Cambridge, Mass., April 14, 2015

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Indie folk troubadour Gregory Alan Isakov has not released an album since 2013's "The Weathermen," but the lack of anything new to push didn't seem to matter in this town because he sold out the house over two nights to the tune of about 1,000 tickets. Even with downer songs.

Indie folk can mean a variety for things, and that certainly did for the Colorado resident by way of South Africa. Think of Mumford & Sons as a reference point where there is rootsy stuff going on with a very textured bent, but it's not quite folk. Not rock. And you could add three country songs into the musical pot as well.

Isakov said he was aided by his "best friends" in the band, and they made like they were. Fiddle player Jeb Bows was powerful in coloring the spaces, while Steve Varney played banjo to similar effect. Cellist Phil Parker added the deeper, broader sounds to the mix. Drummer Max Barcelow kept a most steady beat, especially when the music swelled as it did time and again to a fuller, far more powerful sound.

That's particularly where the Mumford reference seemed most appropriate. A song may have meandered along for a stretch with the cello giving it a hefty bottom before picking up the speed, volume and most definite engagement to soar time and again.

Isakov has a strong, sonorous voice that captured the essence of what he sang, which was on the darker side of life. Leonard Cohen is an obvious influence for Isakov, but he also had an uplifting spirit about him in his comments to the crowd and general demeanor. Isakov also alternated between two mics - sometimes within the same song - on one stand with one being old school with slight reverb.

This was by no means an overly rehearsed show, a good thing. When Isakov talked about how the band was good about playing in the dark, he obliged a fan who wondered why not now by turning down the lights. (in fact, they have two planetarium shows set for later this year).

Isakov and mates (save the drummer) moved to the front of the stage a few times to gather around a single mic in what was the more country oriented portion of the evening where the banjo came to the fore.

Isakov did play a few new songs that he said they had worked up over the past few weeks, so Isakov won't be touring on the past for too long. No matter because it's all good.

Jolie Holland opened with a 40-minute set of generally monochromatic, even-keeled music. Holland grew a bit bluesy at times, but seemed to have put her country and rootsy sounds behind her for the most part, except for the guitar playing of her sidekick, Stevie Weinstein-Foner.

There just wasn't enough diversity in the songs to make for an entertaining set. When Holland did change things up - by whistling on a few songs - and most clearly during her return to the stage during Isakov's set for a take on Townes Van Zant's "If I Needed You," she proved far more engaging. Holland, Weinstein-Foner joined Isakov et al for the easy going, roots-oriented, closing downer "All Shades of Blue."

With songs like that and lines like "I'm sort of happy most of the time, most of the time" in "Liars," one could easily get the feeling that this would be a concert for those down in the dump. That could be, but Isakov makes it sound pretty darn good.