Gregory Alan Isakov Brings His Wistful Folk Music to Ann Arbor Summer Festival


Gregory Alan Isakov wears a brown hat and holds an acoustic guitar.

Gregory Alan Isakov stopped in Ann Arbor for his Appaloosa Bones tour. Photo taken from Ann Arbor Summer Fest's Facebook page.

Gregory Alan Isakov often forgets the words to his most commercially successful song, “Big Black Car.”

“If you know the words, sing along,” the folk singer-songwriter begged the packed Hill Auditorium audience on June 17 in Ann Arbor. “Please.”

But unlike some disgruntled artists who refuse to play their hits as they progress in their careers, Isakov is gracious for the work that’s propelled him to perform on different stages.

His plea was more respectful than snarky, and it was a nod to one of his early albums, 2009’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere.

Ann Arbor Summer Fest partnered with The Ark to host Isakov on the University of Michigan’s campus. Established in 1984 by the City of Ann Arbor and U-M, the nonprofit puts on the monthlong arts-based festival each June. 

And who better to feature than the people’s prince? Isakov was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but now resides in Boulder County, Colorado, and runs Starling Farm, which provides produce to community-supported agriculture members, local restaurants, and food banks. 

While currently on the road, Isakov stopped in Ann Arbor as part of his Appaloosa Bones tour. Released last fall, the album is his latest since 2018’s Evening Machines and fits snugly with the rest of Isakov’s discography. It offers much of the same Isakov signature folk sound, yet includes some new elements as well.

Rich with classic Americana imagery of dusty roads, lovely women, nicotine, and traveling, Isakov’s performance dusted off old songs and invited listeners to take a nostalgic trip through the places and people who led him through life. Isakov might veer towards some darker tunes, but he always makes a compelling case for hope.  

Beginning with tracks like “Amsterdam” and “Dark, Dark, Dark,” Isakov said he wanted to get the tougher songs out of the way first. While he considers “Dark, Dark, Dark” a happy song, both tracks explore a yearning to come home.

Isakov performed songs from his catalog both solo and with his “lifelong friends” on stage, including Jeb Bows (violin), Steve Varney (banjo, guitar, piano), Max Barcelow (drums), John Paul Grisby (bass), and Danny Black (guitar, keys, steel).

The band proved integral to the live experience as a whole and shared a brotherly connection on stage. They predicted each other’s next move and came together with a playful, yet serious approach that all great performers possess.

It also doesn’t take a genius to notice the somber nature of Isakov’s work. His show wasn’t packed with fans expecting a vibrant rock concert experience complete with a mosh pit.

Instead, attending an Isakov show borders on a religious-like experience, and his fans are drawn to the wistful themes featured in his music. They reveal this notion more than he does during his most popular songs, which feature the crowd slightly whispering each chorus alongside him.

The show’s setlist even featured old favorites like “Master & A Hound” and “Second Chances” alongside Appaloosa Bones’ tracks “The Fall” and “Before the Sun.” “Second Chances,” a song that Isakov deems as a “more positive track” about giving grace to others, closed out his set.

The encore highlighted two more fan favorites, “Silver Bell” and “Saint Valentine,” before Isakov and his crew disappeared through the stage’s side door.

Meanwhile, Afro-Appalachian folk artist Mon Rovîa opened the show with his arresting tone and heart-wrenching stories of escaping war in Liberia.

He shared his experiences with the crowd and explained how they colored each song. From struggling with survivor’s guilt to finding community in a new area to losing a friend to cancer, Rovîa conquered the feat of opening for a notoriously sentimental and beloved musician. 

Ally Hall is the writer and editor of Rocka Magazine, a music publicist, and a freelance writer.