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Early Chris-mas present
December 7, 2011 - Rick Chatenever
In his red sequined Grand Ole Opry duds and a suit made of mirrors, flanked by rockabilly band mates he’s played with for decades, Chris Isaak put on a quite a show in Castle Theater a week ago.
Performing to a full house, the cool crooner and retro rocker tapped into his musical roots. Adding songs from his most recent recording — an homage to some of the early hits produced by Sam Phillips at Memphis’ Sun Studios in the ’50s — Isaak electrified the crowd for almost two hours.
Owning a voice to match Roy Orbison’s would be reward enough for most vocalists. But Isaak also ably covered Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Elvis in his rollicking set.
“Call the baby sitter,” he told the enthusiastic crowd, which erupted further when he said the band was planning to stay a while. Isaak’s trademark songs like “Wicked Game” and “Baby Did a Bad Thing” are echoey and haunting — like an abandoned house or a distant train whistle out on the prairie on a cold winter night. But he’s equally at home with ballads, or else rocking out, hopping across the stage Chuck Berry-style, or doing choreographed moves with guitarist Hershel Yatovitz and bass player Rowland Salley.
Under his ’50s teenager-in-love hair, time has been good to his boyish, matinee- idol face. At 55, from the forgiving distance of the balcony, he looked forever young, an impression reinforced by his high-octane playing. Slinky women from the audience sensually staked out the front of the stage as volunteer go-go dancers. Castle Theater, with its crystal-clear acoustics, was all honky-tonk that night.
Isaak casts himself as a bad boy … with a twinkle in his eye. His promises to get raunchy are delivered with a wink, not a leer. Hardly a menace to society, he is, instead, the irresistible rascal. Mischievous rather than dangerous, the last thing he seems to take seriously is himself. While he has always had the confidence — as opposed to a diva’s ego— to cover Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” or Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the addition of more early Sun Records hits made the evening feel downright historic.
While a few of us gray hairs in the audience remembered the songs from their first time around, his act was hardly archival. He came at the hallowed material, like Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” not as an imitator, but with respect and admiration, even as he and the band were breathing new life into the song, making it their own.
His confidence in taking on this virtually untouchable music and pulling it off stood in stark contrast to his hilarious, self-effacing stage presence. It seemed like he had checked his ego at the door, replacing it with the sheer glee of rocking out with his pals, some of whom started with him a quarter-century ago in Stockton, Calif.
You knew they had played a lot of the songs on the playlist tens of thousands of times before —including two previous, dynamite shows at the MACC —but each song still felt fresh and alive, like they were playing it for the first time. As much as he is a great vocalist and outstanding musician, Chris Isaak is a wonderful showman. He doesn’t work his way through the song list so much as he turns it into something theatrical, deftly orchestrating waves of emotion through longing and loneliness into way happier places.
Doing Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” was a reminder that this is, indeed, the season of giving —and Chris Issak gives it all he’s got, every time.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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AUBREY HORD photo: Chris Isaak gets airborne in Castle Theater, backed by Hershel Yatovitz on guitar and Rafael Padilla on percussion.