Weak lyrics aside, Imogen Heap and Gregory Alan Isakov delight sold-out eTown audience

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Adam Perry
Gregory Alan Isakov at the Boulder Theater Sunday night.

Playing songs
from her new album Ellipse, 31-year-old English multi-instrumentalist and
alt-pop songstress Imogen Heap wowed a sold-out eTown audience at the Boulder
Theater last night with a vast array of instruments large and small, ranging
from a see-through piano to a miniature splash cymbal.

Heap’s
enchanting voice is one part Tori Amos, one part Alicia Keys, and almost every
moment of her music is flush with a touch of just slightly un-proper English
charm. Some Jacks-(and Jills)-of-all-trades lose something in the way of spirit
and significance in the midst of loop-heavy solo setups consisting of countless
pedals, computers and keyboards, but Heap pulls off “hi-fi lo-fi” by
juxtaposing weird ethnic instruments with cutting-edge technology.

Quite simply,
this supremely talented, eccentric, big-haired English woman is a band unto
herself, which is altogether mesmerizing. However, self-conscious lines like
“Everybody says time is everything / Are we just going to wait it out?” and
“Little bird, what do you see?” quickly and vividly point out that Heap, while
obviously a brilliant musician and singer, is a below-average lyricist. Truly
captivating as a singer and pianist, part of why Heap has so far fallen just
short of mega-success could be that her brilliant music is wed with lyrics not
terribly far from the likes of Avril Lavigne. Still, Heap was a great fit for
eTown, getting emcee Nick Forster so star-struck he started inventing words
like “upliftment.”

eTown (which is
planning to move its operation permanently into a carbon-powered Boulder church
by next summer) ostensibly puts on diverse musical shows for “different
audiences,” enjoys the support of heavyweight advertisers like Ben &
Jerry’s and Celestial Seasonings, and gives much-needed attention to local
charities. The part about local charities is true (and wonderful), but by and
large eTown’s musical guests fall into or near the adult-contemporary category
(ranging from Moby to Loretta Lynn) and their audience is almost completely
white, upper-class, and somewhere between 25 and 45.

Forster is one
of Boulder’s authentic treasures, an absolutely incredible guitarist who
genuinely loves (and can seemingly play any kind of) music. However, none of
eTown’s various hosts are particularly funny or engaging in a way that makes
listeners want to show up (or tune in) no matter who the musical guests are;
and in general eTown doesn’t seem to have its finger on the pulse of modern
music.

Bands that have
recently played packed shows in the Boulder area on their way to major acclaim
— like The Heartless Bastards, Jolie Holland, Blitzen Trapper, Foals or the
mighty Dr. Dog — would be perfect fits for eTown if they’re interested in
attracting both diverse artists and diverse crowds. And a little bit of raw,
unpredictable energy on the old Boulder Theater stage might appeal to younger
audiences a little more than middle-aged guys in turtlenecks meekly telling
concertgoers “let’s get this show on the road.”

Not to come
crashing down on the entire eTown undertaking, as it’s been a vital and
multifaceted part of Boulder’s arts community since 1991 and a radio hit that’s
fun to see recorded in person. It just needs some fresh energy, and adding
Boulder’s own rising folk-popper Gregory Alan Isakov last night was a great
choice.

Isakov, who
lives in Boulder but was actually born and raised in South Africa and
Philadelphia, respectively, played a couple of his pleasant emo-folk tunes and
participated in a fairly passive on-stage interview with Forster. Forever
acoustic and mellow, Isakov hit the eTown stage dressed in the kind of outfit
that’s obviously an attempt to look like a member of The Band or a hip Civil War
regiment but ends up coming off like a sincere effort to earn a spot in Gap
commercial.

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Helen Forster,
Nick’s wife and fellow eTown emcee, filled in for Brandi Carlile nicely on
Isakov’s beautiful “That Moon Song,” and eTown’s house-band (the eTones) did a
great job behind Isakov after the local sensation played some solo acoustic
numbers.

With the support
of Carlile and Ani DiFranco, Isakov has had great luck touring the country as a
warm-up act for female folk-pop singer-songwriters, but what he’s cultivating
beyond an adoring hometown crowd and the praise of The Indigo Girls is yet to
be seen. In the context of the larger musical world, young Isakov’s “personal,
sweet songs of longing” (to quote Forster) aren’t quite on the level of, say,
The Fleet Foxes, or any number of melancholy singer-songwriters in more dense
music scenes like Austin or San Francisco. He’s always shaking his jaw; he’s
always closing his eyes and moaning softly; he always seems right at the edge
of literally bursting into tears when singing myopic turns of phrase such as
“my coat smells like a café” and “broken hearted lovers, they got nothin’ on
me.” Isakov is clearly talented, but that sort of melodrama is sometimes tough
to watch, and the conjoined hyperbolic local media praise (like “Isakov’s voice
is so lush you just want to fall away from the world when he sings”) is hard to
read.

Strangest of
all, Isakov’s curious on-stage persona seems more depressed and precious
as he gets more successful. Coming out of
a small town where support is so clear and there isn’t the vast and hard-edged
competition Isakov would see in many other musical communities, the young
singer-songwriter has an excellent chance to use his current surge of
encouragement to evolve and grow stronger and more unique as an artist rather
than remain enjoyably derivative and find a plateau. Shining, if only
occasionally, in front of a sold-out Boulder Theater as part of an
internationally celebrated program like eTown is a pretty good sign Isakov
hasn’t peaked, and that’s exciting.