Gregory Alan Isakov and his band perform at the 40 Watt Club on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Tristen T. Webb, tristentwebb.com)

 Five singers huddled around a single microphone with a banjo, fiddle, upright bass and acoustic guitars isn’t the type of performance you’d expect to see at venue known for launching punk rock and new wave. But Gregory Alan Isakov is an unconventional musician himself as he’s also a full-time farmer in Colorado, and his sold-out show brought fans together from across the state and beyond. 

Isakov, a singer-songwriter from South Africa, is known for his folk hits such as “The Stable Song,” “Big Black Car” and “Saint Valentine,” and his sold-out show on Nov. 13 is a testament to both his talent and dedicated fan base. 

Under a revolving, silver disco ball, glitter-covered stars and string lights which were strung across the room, fans packed into the small venue wearing  layered clothing to ward off the evening’s 30-degree weather. The steady, anticipatory conversation which filled the space was soon replaced by the soulful voice of opener Luke Sital-Singh, a singer-songwriter from the United Kingdom. 

Sital-Singh’s eyes, framed by clear glasses, looked out over the crowd as he introduced himself as the person who would be warming them up by playing “fucking sad songs.” 

Singh’s performance of songs such as “Los Angeles” and  “Nothing Stays the Same” elicited cheers. After playing “Raise Well,” a song about being scared to become a father, someone from the crowd yelled to “just have a kid already,” which made both musician and audience laugh. 

It wasn’t long after Sital-Singh’s six-song set that Isakov and his band walked onto the stage to the clapping, cheers and whistles of the audience. A moving solo by violinist Jeb Bows reverberated across the stage as the familiar words from “Dandelion Wine” emerged from the moving strains of the instrument. 

 “Oh man, it feels so good to be here, thank you so much,” Isakov said, his eyes shaded by the brim of a brown hat. 

In a previous Q&A with The Red & Black, Isakov said he likes to wear a hat to keep the light out of his eyes so he can focus on the words to all of his songs.

Isakov played a combination of old favorites and songs off his 2018 album “Evening Machines,” such as “San Luis,” which currently has over 20 million listens on Spotify, to the upbeat song ironically titled, “Dark, Dark, Dark.”

Alternating red, blue, and yellow lights danced off the faces of the band members as they performed the title track to the 2009 album, “This Empty Northern Hemisphere” which is one of Isakov’s most rock-inspired songs. The energy in the room reached a high with whistles and cheers as the strong bass and drum line shook the floor.

For Lauren Connell, a senior art major at the University of North Georgia, this was her favorite performance in the show. 

“It’s just so hard-hitting,” Connell said. “There’s so many different elements that they bring into it that’s not on the original recording so it just feels really atmospheric.”

Connell first discovered Isakov on Pandora and said his music helped her get through her freshman year of college. She’s seen Isakov perform five other times and said “every single one is different in their own ways” but that each show has been “amazing.”

Unlike many musicians, Isakov stood alongside the rest of his band instead of front and center for the majority of the performance. About halfway through the show, however, Isakov and the other four members moved to the front of the stage to gather around a single microphone. 

“I’m so excited to be at the 40 Watt, this is a dream,” Isakov said before diving into acoustic renditions of “Time Will Tell” and “Saint Valentine.”

Isakov also called up Sital-Singh on stage to perform Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which blended together voices and the sounds of both acoustic and electric guitar. 

After Sital-Singh left the stage, Isakov stood alone with a single spotlight shining warm, yellow down on him. His solo performance of “She Always Takes It Black” from his 2013 album “The Weatherman” showcased not only his talent as a singer, but as a songwriter as well. Before you could see them, the sounds of a bass, drums and violin began to play and the stage lights turned up as the band seamlessly transitioned into “Amsterdam.”

Throughout the show, Isakov would often step away from the microphone and out of the spotlight to let the other musicians and instruments shine through. 

Isakov’s performance of “The Stable Song” with banjo player Steve Varney, had the audience softly singing the familiar lyrics as the two musicians played off each other and let their voices and instruments meld together.  

The final song, “All Shades of Blue” featured all the artists, including Sital-Singh, back around the lone microphone again as they belted out the lyrics and showcased their love for making music. At the end, attendees lifted their voices and drinks in salute as Isakov, Sital-Singh and the rest of the band as they bowed together. 

“He’s very down to earth, especially with his lyrics,”  Connell said. “It feels like he tries really hard to connect the real world and nature and emotions deeply more than the regular music you see nowadays.” 

Brent Shuman, a graduate student studying fungal biology at the University of Georgia, said while he’s been listening to Isakov’s music for three years, this was his first time seeing him in person. 

“It felt like a full body experience because the bass was so punchy and [Isakov’s] vocals sounded surreal,” Shuman said.

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