“It’s such an honour to be here, I’m going to play you a bunch of sad songs,” said Gregory Alan Isakov, the singer-songwriter opening for Passenger last Sunday evening in Belfast. When all is said and done though, it seems that both artists who held the stage that night have a penchant for the miserable. A wee hankering for the not-so-happy-go-lucky.
“Mike and I get along because sad songs make us happy,” Alan Isakov continued. That’s Mike – Michael ‘Passenger’ Rosenberg to you and I – the ex-busker who was singing songs of rampant technology, hating X-Factor, love, and its myriad consequences, to a sell-out crowd at the Waterfront Hall.
It was Gregory Alan Isakov coming to town that alerted me to the gig. He’s one of those songwriters with words that paint a facial expression in three strokes. A voice that’s laid back, and dry, and distant, and somehow there for you. In Belfast he was playing solo, his guitar on occasion sounding like he wasn’t the only one on stage. It would sweep from seemingly following the same gentle melody as his voice, then on to loud, dramatic, shouting guitar, filling the room like your boss’s bad mood. ‘Liars’ from his latest album Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony had the full gamut of that guitar. It started with words half spoken through what sounded like a vintage mic. Like an age old commentator, he was an observer in another room. Then it shifted, got louder. It sounded like a different mic, a regular one, he was right in the present, here, today; the distance had gone as the guitar spoke up and his voice altered. He’s coming back in March to play Belfast’s Voodoo, keep an eye out.
Passenger on the other hand was a reasonably unknown quantity to me. I’d heard his better known numbers, but it hadn’t gone any further than that. At one point he told us “Just so you know, I only have one famous song.” Everyone knew what it was, but he kept the room waiting a bit longer before he produced the goods.
He called us ‘Belfast.’ “Belfast I need you to sing along with this” as the intro to ‘Life’s For The Living’ kicked in. “It doesn’t matter if you can sing or not.” And right from that first song the stagecraft was apparent as he handed lines over to the audience to sing for him; as he rallied a Sunday night Belfast crowd to join in with his opening number. “Come on Belfast,” he urged, “stick out your thumb,” as the line in the song said he was going to do. And at once the crowded hall was adrift with happy thumbs. Good skills.
There were five or six of them on stage for most of the night, but he was solo for a few numbers, one of which, ‘Travelling Alone’, particularly stood out. For this he plainly asked the audience to quieten down. The stagecraft kicked in again, that mastery over his troops, from jokes, to wise cracks, to plain talking, he was conducting the room from high to calm. He wanted to tell us the background to the song, what had happened to the people he talks about in the lyrics, why they found themselves travelling alone. Their poignant circumstances left open for us to digest. I’m not sure it meant the same thing to everyone in the hall. Nevertheless, his performance seemed heartfelt, and the song was gorgeous.
There were some covers including a great version of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’. And there was also ‘I Hate’ which includes the line “I hate ignorant folks, who pay money to see gigs/ And talk through every fucking song.” The two people in front of me who had talked all the way through his set gave that one a massive cheer at the end.
He finished on ‘Holes’ which had the crowd standing on all the floors. Clapping and backing him up, they were singing along, ”We’ve got holes in our hearts/yeah we’ve got holes in our lives.” The lady who had jumped up off her seat and danced as if no one was looking at various intervals through the night had lost herself to the song. She was stuck in. This, I thought to myself as I watched her, is what it’s all about. This is magic.