On Gregory Alan Isakov, the end of another year (and another decade), how things change, and how they don’t
Last Thursday, I went to the High Dive here in Seattle to catch Gregory Alan Isakov. As evidenced by the Top 20 I posted here (which fed into the Bird List), Isakov’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere was, in my opinion, one of the finest albums this year. Its melancholy poetics and lush, languid melodies stir me. He churns up his own musical atmosphere, ruled by the moon and the sea, at least aesthetically if not always lyrically. That he can do the same thing alone onstage, without the benefit of a full backing band is remarkable. (This night, he simply had one guitarist/vocalist accompanying him, and that guy’s levels were turned all the way down.)
I don’t generally have a lot of patience for onstage navel-gazing. There’s a lot to be said for being a performer, for delivering onstage something which can’t be delivered in a studio, and vice-versa. I tend to see live and recorded music as two separate experiences. And, having interviewed Isakov on this subject, I know he does too. But there’s something about the way he stands in one place with his eyes closed and just pours the songs out. There’s nothing flashy happening, no big explosive drum solos or fireworks. In the context of Isakov, somehow, it’s enough to just see one single man creating those songs.
It’s been about a year since I was first turned onto Isakov’s music by a very emphatic Brandi Carlile.
At the time, Brandi was part of a spread in SoundNW magazine (may it rest in peace) wherein I claimed country music wasn’t all about big hair and pretty Nashville stars, but actually existed authentically in and around the Northwest, in the form of six particularly gifted local singer-songwriters (Carlile, Star Anna, Sera Cahoone, Laura Gibson, Shelley Short, and Zoe Muth). The story ran on the cover, with those six women positioned under the headline “The Next Big Thing.” It was, I claimed, an indication of a strong year ahead for authentic country music – that which comes from rural-ness, and not necessarily bearing Nashville’s stamp – both in the Northwest, and in general.
Zoe Muth and Star Anna both received votes from the ND community in our recent poll of the best albums of 2009. Carlile released an outstanding third full-length on Columbia (also on my personal Top 20), which was decidedly more rootsy and Carlile-esque than her previous, more polished effort. Gibson’s Beasts of Seasons was an excellent effort in its own right (admittedly overlooked by people like myself when it came time to name the year’s best efforts). Short earned the attention of folks like Daytrotter and Paste as the year tore on. And Cahoone spent equal parts time on the road opening for Son Volt and back on drums behind Betsy Olson. (Olson didn’t make that cover merely because I discovered her a month too late, though I insisted in a later issue that, if Seattleites saw one new artist in 2009, it should be Olson. Also, she’s more blues than country, but still…I digress.)
I’ve come to the time of year where I tend to look back on what’s come to pass and try to make sense of the whole thing. So it suits my year-end assessment that 2009 began, for me, with that sharp focus on six artists whom I believe continue to shape the Northwest’s reputation as a place where Americana happens. It also suits this annual nostalgia that I started the year enthralled by a new singer-songwriter from Boulder, Colo., whose performance last week will be one of the last shows I see this year. It brings the whole narrative full-circle.
Of course, my tastebuds (musically speaking) and life in general don’t operate in full, perfect circles.
There’s been other music that’s struck me this year, beyond those six ladies and that one guy. I already mentioned Olson and, in a separate post, a number of other artists whose albums are still on tight rotation in my world. Locally, I saw others pop up (Moondoggies, Lindsay Fuller, Grand Hallway) and tighten up (Jack Wilson, the Maldives). Far as the national scene goes, I fell in love with Belleville Outfit and Sara Watkins’ at-long-last solo album. The Bottle Rockets‘ set at Grimey’s during the AMA conference still stands up as one of the best shows I saw all year.
There’s also the matter that the place where I’m typing this year-end rumination didn’t exist when 2009 started. That NoDepression.com has, in less than a year’s time, become a community of – at the time of this blog post – nearly 5,500 people around the world having nearly 300 conversations in the forum, sharing nearly 1,000 videos, more than 2,000 blogs, and over 7,000 photos, is notable. I’m not much of a horn-tooter, but when I think of all the discussions and deliberations, blind leaps, and other exercises of faith we here at ND HQ have had over the past year (and all those which went on before I had anything to do with it), I have to toot a horn and nominate Kyla Fairchild for a Medal of Good Faith. Though no such award exists, it’s been no small task to get the wheels rolling on this thing. And because I don’t believe Kyla to be much of a self-congratulater, I’ll give the congratulations for her, and immediately follow it with a note to you folks:
Thank you. Thanks to those of you who somehow found us right out of the gate when we launched in February (and who just discovered us today), who have witnessed our growing pains and helped guide the development of this community, who have, of your own volition, shared your thoughts about new albums and live shows in blog posts, have uploaded your photos and videos, have reported spam and emailed with ideas about how to make the whole thing more effective and useful…you’ve all grabbed a proverbial oar and made sure we got this boat steering in the right direction. So thank you for showing up and getting us through these first eleven months as a whatever-this-is online existence. If you like what’s going on here, make a point of sticking around, make a point of telling someone about it. Link to us from Twitter and Facebook, help us make sure that I can come back here this time in 2010 and thank you again for getting us past 10,000 members. And, most of all, rest assured that, short of spamming people, there’s no wrong way to use this site. There’s no such thing as an opinion that’s not good enough to share or anyone who’s not welcome to blog here. If you have questions, concerns, or ideas, lay them on me.
Of course, there’s also the decade that’s drawing to a close. It’s only natural to go ahead and ruminate on that, too. Ten years ago, I was living in Northwest Portland, Ore., working at Powell’s Books, playing music, and occasionally picking up a copy of No Depression (the only music magazine I ever made a point of reading). As an independent singer-songwriter, getting gigs out of town involved stuffing envelopes with CDs and letters to the venues. Then came the rounds of phone calls, the mapping of the tour in a paper notebook/address book/calendar. The media existed in magazines and newspapers. A review from a blogger was irrelevant. There was no way in hell I was going to stake my reputation on internet marketing and tools like Yahoo search. I was so frequently asked why I wasn’t seeking label support that I responded with a canned answer about The Man and the future of the indie artist.
I reckon it’s a little different now. Folks have Sonicbids, MySpace, and various other avenues. BandCamp.com, etc. Indie labels and unsigned artists are standard. People use their phones for texting, tweeting, and poorly taken concert photos. I can share a song I’ve just written with someone in Australia in about 30 seconds. I don’t tour anymore, but my email is full of indie artists eagerly seeking reviews from people like me who work almost entirely for various blogs. And the kind of music I love, listen to, and make is at the top of critics’ lists for the best recordings of the year and decade. Gone are the furrowed brows and inquiries of why I waste my time with rootsy music when there are more palatable (and lucrative) avenues. Maybe it’s because people understand now that there are few lucrative avenues in the music industry anymore. Maybe it’s because the average person appreciates Neko Case now, all of a sudden. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
At any rate, standing at the High Dive watching Gregory Alan Isakov last week, I couldn’t help but think about the way this decade has panned out. I’ve stood on the same stage doing the same thing, which makes the experience of picking apart his performance a bit of a different animal than I suppose it would be for some of my critic colleagues. A decade ago, I never would have imagined myself in this position. I also never would have imagined the one music magazine I ever bothered reading would, by decade’s end, be some kind of undefinable hybridized social network/community blog situation on the internet, or that I’d be able to access this site from a phone (which I also use to play scrabble with my friends across the country, which I also use to check the weather, navigate the streets of unfamiliar cities, and book flights home, among other things).
An increase in mainstream popularity and acceptance for indie artists, roots and Americana music, and the diversification of the music marketplace; the migration of the media from paper to the web; the emergence of the web as a tool for drawing people together; social networking; open-source software; Neko Case and the Avett Brothers earning mainstream cred despite staying true to their songs and the artistry therein (indicating somehow that the average music fan is perhaps more open to outside-the-box creativity)…I’d say it’s been a pretty exciting decade. And despite all these technological advancements and evolutions, a room full of strangers can still stand together in a dive bar in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle and be turned onto the work of a solo singer-songwriter whose music is at once quiet and provocative, and who insists on forging his way through a tech-savvy universe one acoustic strum at a time.
Some things don’t change.