The term “one hit wonder” can be viewed as a pejorative phrase or a statement of fact. When you consider how many musicians never make any dent in the cultural landscape, having one hit record should be viewed as a significant achievement. I tend to look at the phrase as factual summary, although it’s a bit odd to ever put Lou Reed and Right Said Fred in the same categorical fishing pond. It’s surprising that roots rock crooner Chris Isaak hasn’t had more commercial success – he’s genial, smart, and does good work in a traditional genre of music (that is to say, he doesn’t substantively challenge his audience). The sensual, almost erotic, “Wicked Game” video was one of the most memorable of the MTV era and gave Isaak a Top Ten pop hit in 1990. He has had continued success as an album artist (interestingly, he has a particularly strong fan base in Australia, where his best of disc went triple platinum) and as a touring act.
This was my first time seeing Isaak in a live setting and he’s an extraordinary entertainer. The 58 year old rocker has aged well both physically and vocally – he still looks and sounds like a man in his prime. He has an excellent supporting cast and there were few, if any, missteps in an energetic two-hour show. Isaak hit the stage wearing a blue, sequined filled Nudie inspired suit, drummer Kenney Dale Johnson slapped into the “I Want You to Want Me” beat of the hot opener “Gone Ridin’” and the band was off to the races. This is a group that can cover a lot of territory – traditional rock ‘n’ roll, garage rock, surf guitar, Latin rhythms, and the Bakersfield sound were all represented during the set.
Thematically, Isaak is all about hummable heartbreak. He mined the “blue” theme several times including “Blue Hotel,” “Blue Spanish Sky,” “Forever Blue,” and – in a nod to the Lone Star State – a bluesy shuffle version of “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas).” Even his backdrop was blue. Women love the guy. He’s witty and charming enough to be a stand up comic, but also knows how to play the seduction card. When the band hit the opening chords of “Wicked Game,” it felt like the room was hit by an estrogen thunderstorm.
Each band member got their time in the spotlight. Percussionists Johnson and Rafael Padilla did a tight percussion jam as a coda to “San Francisco Days,” pianist Scott Plunkett moved to the front of the stage on the boogie woogie cover of “Great Balls of Fire,” and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz and bassist Rollie Salley often did choreographed moves with the lead singer, bringing perpetual energy to the show. For this set, saxophone player Johnny Reno, who performed in an early version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble in the late ‘70s, was a special guest. Reno, who had toured with Isaak in the past, plays a retro style jump blues that perfectly suited the music.
There were times when Isaak’s material reminded me of Marshall Crenshaw (“Somebody’s Cryin’”), Buddy Holly (“I Believe”), and Ricky Nelson (“Forever Blue”). In one sense, Isaak is almost so good at what he does that he is beyond criticism. However, being a critic, the weakness for Isaak is that he seldom makes an emotional investment in his music. By design, he’s simulating the emotions of his rock ‘n’ roll heroes and that constructed detachment is the difference between fun/memorable/quality work and life changing. Working the crowd until the end of the night, for the encore Isaak changed into a suit that looked like it had been constructed with small panels of disco ball mirrors. The man knows how to entertain. And, perhaps we’d all be better off if we feigned despair versus actually feeling it.
Grade – A
Don’t Leave Me On My Own
Notice the Ring
Let Me Down Easy
This Love Will Last
You Don’t Cry Like I Do
Don’t Make Me Dream
Lie to Me
San Francisco Days
Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)
Blue Spanish Sky
Ring of Fire
You Took My Heart
Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing
Oh, Pretty Woman
Big Wide Wonderful World
Great Balls of Fire
weaving a fairy tale for us to get lost in
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – July 1973 (Volume 5, Number 2)
“I don’t consider David (Bowie) to be even remotely big enough to be any competition.”
an old school New York feel
oedipal vulnerable and blue collar visceral
An emotional song with Miya’s acrobatic and vulnerable vocals
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – May 1973 (Volume 4, Number 12)
From Robert Johnson to the Ramones – what a life!
one of the great top tens of the 2020
will mark their return to the road in early February, 2023 with a string of to-be-announced US arena dates
enjoyable and soulful romp
another full day of music