Byron Isaacs: From Lumineers to Lost Leaders, driven by the joy of sharing music

Byron Isaacs. Photo by Lisa MacIntosh

Byron Isaacs is eagerly anticipating that moment when he hits the stage, to the roar of the crowd, with his band mates in the Lumineers.

“I cannot wait for it to start back up again,” said Isaacs, who plays bass for the Lumineers. “And I don’t know what it’s going to look like when we start back up again. For large venues, I think we’re all still just waiting to see what’s going to be possible. But I’ll tell you, whatever is possible and safe, the Lumineers will be doing it. However that emerges, we’ll be all over it.”

A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, uncertainty still consumes our lives and in many ways crystallizes around the live music industry. Nationwide pandemic restrictions on public gatherings struck at the heart of an industry that helps anchor the U.S. economy. Venues have been closed. Tours have been sidelined. And what the future of the music business looks like is anyone’s guess.

And while vaccinations continue and slivers of daylight for musicians and venues begin to emerge, the uncertainty weighs heavily on performers and audiences alike. But Isaacs, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist known for the Levon Helm Band, Ollabelle and Lost Leaders remains defiant when it comes to the enduring nature of the arts and artists.

Originally from Texas and now a long-time Brooklyn resident, Isaacs compared the emboldened nature of musicians and artists to flowers that find their way through cracks in a concrete sidewalk.

“We all had a big slab of concrete thrown on us in the last year,” he said. “But nothing is going to keep artists down. One way or another, we have to figure out a way to get art to people, regardless of the medium. All artists have to find new ways to get their art out and there is just so much joy in the communication. Art is communication. You’re communicating something that can’t be expressed any other way.”

Byron Isaacs. Photo by Lisa MacIntosh

Isaacs added, “As long as people want to hear music, which I think will probably be as long as there are people, it’s going to get to them somehow.”

Isaacs through the pandemic has been performing and writing as a means of satisfying that basic human need for music, for culture, for art, that drives both performer and audience alike.

But many of us, after being thrust into the early days of the pandemic, when words like quarantine and lockdown were driving our conversations with others, worked to get our sea legs while adjusting to a new reality, one that did not include live, structured public performances of music.

“In the first couple months, I found myself, creatively, just blocked,” Byron said. “I think we were all in this fight or flight mode and waiting to see what was about to happen.”

Byron, like many of us, found himself with a new wealth of free time and no obligations to be anywhere. But the creative juice was not flowing.

“Finally, it might have corresponded with quarantine easing up in New York City — New York City was so bad for a few months there — as we all started to breathe a sigh of relief, the floodgates opened back up and then I entered a creative period,” he said. “I did a lot of writing, a lot of practicing. It was great.”

Life in general at that point was seeming less anxious as well, Byron said.

“There was a lot of hanging with the family, cooking meals, meditating,” he said. “It was very restorative. It took a while for that to finally open up.”

Byron Isaacs, on far left, with the Lumineers. Photo by Danny Clinch

One of the most compelling musical undertakings that Byron was involved with during the pandemic was his neighborhood sidewalk jam. What started as a musical offering as part of the city’s daily 7 p.m. “Thank You” to frontline and essential workers, with church bells ringing and New Yorkers offering all kinds of sonic gratitude, including the banging of pots and pans, became a solid outlet for his creative expression.

“It turned into a weekly block party, mostly on Fridays,” Byron said. “We would play until it got dark. People would come from other boroughs. That was something we all looked forward to each week. Playing outside is always pretty fun, especially when it’s impromptu and informal. It helped a lot of us. It was salve for our souls.”

That musical experience offered Byron just one means for gaining perspective on his adopted hometown of New York City, and the spirit that drives his roughly 9 million neighbors. A city resident since 1994 who has lived in the same home since April 2001, Byron said, “I’ve gotten to see New York go through a lot of phases.”

He continued, “The pandemic reminded me in some ways of 9/11 in that New Yorkers really pull together, they really do. When it’s just clear that everyone needs to make some sacrifice for the whole, people might complain, but they’ll do it. There’s such a fierce sense of community. You can feel it from neighbor-to-neighbor.

“The general feeling in all of New York City was really one of coming together and working together to get through the pain and shoulder the burden together and that’s a wonderful thing. You really feel the soul of your city when it’s going through a crisis. Everyone feels more together than ever before when they’re sharing sorrow and hard times. I love my city. It makes me proud to be a New Yorker.”

All of this emotion, this determination, the deliberate attention that Byron pays to the folks around him, the situations he finds himself in and the way he reacts to them, all of it has surely shaped the songwriting he engaged in over recent months.

“I’ve been writing a whole bunch through the pandemic,” he said.

But, he continued, “For me there’s always a lag with what I’m going through and it coming out in my writing. I think it’s because, on an unconscious level, I’m processing it and I have got to sort of learn things from it on maybe a not-so-intellectual level before it will start to filter its way back in.”

Overall, though, “I can say for sure this last year will have had a huge impact on my creativity for sure.”

Peter Cole, left and Byron Isaacs in Lost Leaders.

Looking ahead, Lost Leaders fans can expect a new album from the band that features Byron and Peter Cole, joined by drummer Lee Falco and keyboard player Will Bryant of The Restless Age. Some of those fans have been lucky enough to see Lost Leaders perform at The Falcon in Marlboro, a music venue and restaurant that has endured through the pandemic and shared with its audience the charm that can only come from a former button factory that sits next to a cascading waterfall.

And how about any return to normality when it comes to the live music industry, on a steady basis, with a possible eye to once again indulging our passion for our favorite bands, pre-pandemic-style, inside our favorite live music destinations?

“It’s going to slowly creep back up,” Byron said. “It’s going to be incremental before it gets to full houses. I don’t think you’ll get that all at once rush of, ‘Ahh, we’re back.’ It’s going to feel like, O.K., we’re getting back. Unlike the sudden shock we got last year, it won’t be a sudden start up.”

Underscoring it all, Byron said, from playing the world’s biggest concert halls to igniting a sonic spark on a Brooklyn sidewalk, is his passion for performing.

“It all boils down to just the fundamental sharing and communicating something that can only be communicated through music,” he said. “That’s where the joy is, it’s in the giving. It doesn’t matter to whom you give, to how many you give, how much you get back. It’s about the giving, not the receiving. It’s not about any returns that come back to you. Those things are nice. But if that’s what you’re focused on then you’re forgetting something. You’re forgetting the most important thing.”

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