Gregory Alan Isakov felt very “international” at Vancouver’s grand lady of concert halls, The Orpheum. An acoustic guitar-playing singer/songwriter from Colorado, he augmented his performance with a set of pedals that generated a bass drum effect and a harp mic (possibly a Green Bullet, not sure) in addition to the regular kind. Within the first couple of songs, someone from the audience calls out “you’re real cute”, which he deflected a bit. How is one supposed to respond to that? He tells the house how he loves opening up for people, that this was really only his third solo show, and that being on the road with Passenger feels like a tour/vacation. He’d been a fan of his for a few years, so I would say this is a really good fit.
I had never heard of him before, so this was doubly fun. Being introduced to new artists is definitely a bonus of this sort of gig. He’s got a good sense of humour, too. For his third song, he asks the house techs to dim the lights a bit, and then adds “you can shut them all off” – and the tech staff comply. He does the song, including the harp mic and the bass drum pedal, in virtual darkness, and it’s super atmospheric and cool.
Isakov thanks the audience for being there – so many people don’t even come to see the opening acts – and he had an interesting analogy for this phenomenon: it’s as if you were going to an art gallery and someone asks you to “look at my shitty drawing” first. Well, we’ve all seen opening acts we haven’t loved, but to call them shitty is probably a bit of an overstatement, but that’s just me. Also, I ran into a few young ladies on my way in who bought tickets expressly to see him, so there. Right, so where were we – he told the story of his song “Big Black Car” which was used in a McDonald’s Canada commercial…and how he was a bit conflicted about allowing his song to be used for it. He apparently was an organic farming major in college, so, mass market fast food multinational wasn’t what you would think an ideal fit. Turning it down initially, they must’ve thought he was playing hardball (my interpretation) and contacted him again offering more money. Still not totally comfy with it, and then upon discussions with friends, decided along the lines of ‘if not me, then who’ and he could put the cash to good use: donating much of it to organic food causes/organisations. Nice!
“One of the scariest, coolest things I’ve done in a while” was doing a live record with the Colorado Symphony, and this from a guy who confesses no great love for live albums, and then goes ahead and does one, with a proper symphony orchestra dressed in tuxedos; so proper, one title for the album he says he considered was “flutey as fuck”. If serious, if I were on his marketing team, I would be relieved to have gone with the more conventional title of Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony. It does get to the point.
The final song he did was the one I enjoyed most, and I have no idea what it was called. I was really hoping someone would post a setlist (it would only be for 6 songs by my count) – he used the standard microphone and the harp (still hoping I have that name right), plus that bass drum pedal effect. Listening to some of his music on YouTube, it could have been “That Moon Song”; either way, it was gorgeous and for a half hour or so set with anecdotes, it was truly enjoyable. Plus, Isakov seems super chill – musically and the vibe he brings to the stories he tells.
Now for Passenger. Vancouver lovesPassenger. Vancouver of all ages has great affection for him. Enthusiastic and adorable “squeeee!”-girls to greyhaireds. More people arrived to fill up the orchestra level, but even by the time he started his first song, the 2,700+ seat Orpheum wasn’t completely sold out.
“Fairytales & Firesides” – interrupts himself when the lyric with the F-word comes around for the first time to apologise for cursing. An audience member hoots and many, including Passenger, burst out laughing. “Whoever you are, I like you”, he says, and then complimented the audience because they’d “come to the right show”. As he continued with the song, I remember thinking how much I’ve missed his humour. He can be incredibly funny and he’s very natural and seems genuine in his chit-chat with the crowd. I also recall thinking that during the rests of measures near the end, you could have heard a pin drop…until someone sneezed, which Passenger described as “the cutest ending to this song ever”. Then he remembered something from the last time he was here…he remembered it was at the theatre next door (this guy doesn’t miss a thing, does he?), and he was singing, and looking out at the crowd when he made eye contact with a girl with panic in her eyes. He recognised that she was trying hard not to sneeze and wondered whether she would or wouldn’t. In the end, she “took one for the team” and stifled it (and visibly looking every bit as uncomfortable as doing that is, as he marvelled inwardly at the kinds of contortions the human face can make) – and all of this was happening in perhaps a second or two. Apparently, ever since then, he’s been a tiny bit wary of making eye contact and also is pro-sneeze, definitely advocating you avoid the pain and discomfort of stifling one.
Next came “Life is for Living” which a good many people sang along to, especially during the chorus. All they needed was an invitation and the Orpheum responded. At the lyric “made my bed in a disused car”, someone laughed/snortled, to which he responded that he’d “never had that reaction before”. I thought that perhaps they had seen the minibus with the Colorado plates outside by the stage door that looked like it had seen a good mile or ten thousand.
Prior to “David”, he told the story of how the song came about. An older song (but on the new CD), from his busker days (he said he spent 5 years doing that, but don’t think you’ll never hear him on the street, he hasn’t retired from it; far from it: I have it on good authority that after his last show in Vancouver (July 2013), he was on Granville Street the very next day) and he was in Glasgow staying at a hostel called the Euro Hotel, envisioning a continental experience of croissants and ham (I’m paraphrasing). Outside the hotel on the steps was a man by the name of David who would tell him his life story 4 times a day, who inspired the song. The remarkable/rare thing is that he described him without judgement – one of the things I really respect about Passenger is his compassion. He took the mickey out of a piece of dodgy ham supposedly found on the floor of his hostel room, but not the human being who inspired the story.
Continuing immediately with the next song, I can’t tell you its name, but you don’t need me to tell you it was lovely. There were lyrics about “free as the air” and “young as the morning and old as the sea” and listed many countries in Europe starting out with Scandinavian ones before expanding to the continent. Despite an internet search, I came up empty. If you know what it is, please let us know in the comments so we can update our info.
“Travelling Alone” I remembered the story from last time and it still fills me with sadness to hear the story of the Australian man Mike met busking in Copenhagen. He and his wife had saved up all their lives to go on a great round-the-world adventure when they retired, and the trip was booked, the tickets bought, when his wife died suddenly a few months prior to the departure. To honour her and their life together, the man went by himself. Just writing this makes me want to weep. I can’t even begin to imagine a loss like that, but it makes me all the more aware of how precious and brief life is. If you have the means and the inclination, by all means GO – do the stuff you’ve always dreamt of doing. When you finally get around to it, it might not exist anymore; or worse: you might not. And that’s just the first of the two stories the song comprises! Absolute rapt silence during this song with the crowd held by the spell of the song, this time without sneezes or any other distractions. Speaking of silence, Passenger covers the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence” and just owns it. With his phrasing, with his choice of notes (from the chords not the vocal part, except he’s not strumming chords outright, but letting his fingers dance over the strings), rhythmic change-ups, it’s all his and it takes on a different life from the original and it’s incredible. Especially going into the home stretch from the bridge – it’s got this vitality that winds down to the level of a mere whisper.
For “I Hate” Passenger requests the audience to stand and to sing along and instantly there’s a different energy in the room. And everyone’s smiling and swaying along during the la-la-la-lei. He interrupts himself briefly when he gets to the line about Cher’s face, remarking that since he’s going to be in Los Angeles in a couple of days, he probably ought to change that line a bit. I wonder if he did – and whose face ended up looking f***ed (actually the lyric).
A bit of an intro about now having seven albums out, he makes a joke about Skrillex not being able to make it that night…it seemed an inside joke…and it went over my head, not gonna lie. At some point, perhaps here, he mentions that his latest CD (Whispers II) is a release for charity (UNICEF UK) and a further joke along the lines of ‘if you’re not going to buy it, that’s okay too, but it’s for charity’. Jokes are all in the delivery, aren’t they? Sigh. And he also fanboys about being on tour with Gregory Alan Isakov. Anywho, it’s a Passenger mash-up: “Patient Love / Circles” – and the audience sings along for the “on and on and on” lyrics after he signals everyone to do so. Not everyone’s sat down at this point, so very little energy lost. Besides, for the next song, everyone was back on their feet. THE hit: “Let Her Go” with extended chorus sing-alongs (we sounded GOOD) and everything. He even said it was “absolutely stunning”.
He thanked his Canadian record company, the Vancouver-based Nettwerk, for all of their support and talks about how special it is to have a hit song and on one’s own terms and how difficult it sometimes is for an artist when they are faced with a decision: write the kind of tunes that one is reasonably sure are going to chart and sell lots for the record company etc, or write the kind of songs that mean something to him, in the hope that they will resonate with other people and have meaning for them (paraphrasing again, but that’s the gist). Personally, I’m glad he’s put the latter first, because there’s way, waaaay too much of the former.
“27” – I find this song lyrically interesting (haven’t heard one yet that wasn’t), a young person taking stock of their lives and already a mass of regrets. Like a young person’s “Afternoons and Coffeespoons / Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The upbeat bits always cause audiences to clap along. Why is that?
Recognising this, “Beautiful Birds” is introduced as “back to the misery” and that he’d just put the video for the song up on YouTube having recently shot it in Italy. Here’s the link for it if you’re interested: https://youtu.be/4MwckY3YM_Y – and it’s this simple, plaintive song with lovely scenes in and around (and slightly above) Florence and I’m hearing it for the first time thinking, fuuuuuck, this is beautiful. Another one of the reasons I like this guy’s songs so much is that it’s not easy to find a songwriter who writes at the wavelength of your soul. It doesn’t mean I understand what’s behind every song, because everyone will have different interpretations of them and they’ll all be correct, but there’s a connection, a resonance with the most basic of emotions, that literally just hits all the right notes, and I have no doubt that many of the people in attendance tonight feel the same way.
Saying how this was the “perfect way to start the North American tour”,Passenger proceeds to “Scare Away the Dark” and when he ends it after an extended session of the ‘oh-oh-ohs’, he leaves the stage at quarter to 10. The audience claps and hollers for a brief spell, then picks up the ‘oh-oh-ohs’ complete with people also singing the “sing it out now” line in between repeats. Visibly touched, Passenger returns to the stage within a couple of minutes to help the audience finish the song officially.
For the first song of the encore, he chooses the Bruce Springsteen classic “Dancing in the Dark” and everyone is encouraged to sing along and to make the place less dark, so people hold up lighters and smartphones (he’s doubtful people will have flashlights, he’s right) and this sea of swaying lights as Passenger sings the song about as stripped down as ever I’ve heard it. Again, it’s a song he’s made his own, following the song as written only in basic structure – the order of verses and chorus. Cheers erupt when “Holes” begins. It’s a little upbeat so the audience is on its feet where it’s been since first calling for an encore. The sing-along at the end, repeating the “We’ve got holes in our hearts…” carries on after he’s stopped playing and just kind of guides the crowd to a lovely finish and soaks in the love. And applause, and cheers, and all that other good stuff. As far as tour send-offs go, I think Vancouver represented.
Talking with a couple of audience members afterwards, they asked me to mention that it was a great show and told the story of how they came to be at the show. They were walking around downtown earlier that day and recognised him on the street as they had seen him busking in Stockholm a little while back. They weren’t aware that he had a show that evening, so he gave them a pair of tickets so they could attend. While they were talking, a random man (which they described as a “crazy Vancouver” guy) came up to them and talked at Mike for a bit (we know Passenger’s name is Mike Rosenberg, yes?). He listened as the man ranted and shook his hand after he was done. No judgement on the man’s mental state, no shooing him away; to hear it described, just respect and acceptance. And that, my friends, is what I believe is called being a mensch. Shalom.
SETLIST Fairytales & Firesides Life is for Living David Name not known Travelling Alone Sound of Silence I Hate Patient Love / Circles Let Her Go 27 Beautiful Birds Scare Away the Dark