Live Pop: Chris Isaak at the Greek Theater

By Mike Finkelstein

On Tuesday night Chris Isaak brought his unique take on American music of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s to the Greek Theater.   For nearly two hours he and his superb band, Silvertone, sauntered, skipped and sidled through a set in which each song evoked the time period in musical and visual style.

The band made their entrance first in matching, custom tailored, embroidered grey suits, followed by their leader in a striking black suit with elaborate sequin designs on the front and back and rising up his legs.  The suits rather directly evoked the country music tradition of performing all duded up in fancy matching rhinestone clothes.  Before playing the first song, he thanked the audience sincerely for breaking away from the TV set to come out and support live music.  And then we were off and rocking at various tempos through songs like “Lonely with a Broken Heart,” “Dancin’,” and “Somebody’s Crying.”

Isaak’s songs typically deal with the tensions and heartbreaks of romance.   They are streamlined tunes, featuring basic chord changes and simple but poignant lyrics.   The heart of these songs is brought out with sparse arrangements, clever embellishments, and subtle effects like tremolo, reverb and vibrato.   Isaak sang them powerfully and confidently from the heart with a polished set of pipes.   His uncommonly smooth voice, combined with his ability to navigate falsetto and yodels effortlessly, added even more dimension to the performance.  Several times he held a dramatic note for 12 measures and it only served to enhance the song.  The way Silvertone delivered the music backing him really was impressive.  They are all strong players and they know how to use their talent to advance a song, practicing considerable restraint in their arrangements. Whether soloing or backing each other up, no one played anything unnecessary or short of tasty.  As a result, all the songs breathed freely and every part was that much easier to appreciate.

Throughout the night, Isaak and Silvertone’s goal was all about putting on a classy rock and roll show.   Musically and visually, they did a remarkable job of creating an atmosphere that welcomed us into a different frame of mind.   They sang beautiful harmonies, played clean at a comfortable volume, dressed for the occasion, and played vintage and custom guitars that shimmered and sounded great together.   The band went from duck walking to choreographed moves, to just swaying with the music.  At one point bassist Roland Salley nearly danced himself off the lip of a darkened corner of the stage and Isaak nonchalantly pulled him back to safety.

No doubt about it, even at 54, Chris Isaak is still a heart throb.   So, when he took a stroll through the Greek while crooning Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” the ladies in the audience lapped it up.  Communicating the same appeal that pre-Army heartthrob Elvis had, he offered lots of style, a fine coif and a youthful demeanor.  He also crooned and rocked convincingly, displaying the rare ability to envelop an audience in his style. He brilliantly covered two Roy Orbison tunes, “Only the Lonely” and “Pretty Woman” – a task few singers would risk doing.  But in this performance, Isaak owned the Orbison songs.  Further displaying his versatility, he  even covered James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” with style.

Issak’s between-songs banter was warm and engaging.  He was good at it, but there were times when it seemed he would have done better to play another song instead of continuing to engage us with the shtick.   The night went to a special level when the four members of the band came to the front of the stage to sit on stools and play some ballads.   Songs such as “Western Stars,” “We Lost Our Way,” and “Two Hearts” worked beautifully in this format.   Drummer Kenny Dale Johnson caressed his snare drum by sliding and stroking his brushes in a circular motion that was loaded with panache.  Johnson and Isaak have been singing phenomenally rich high harmonies together for more than twenty five years, and they sounded great together.   Below them swirled keyboardist Scott Plunkett on accordion, bassist Salley, and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz.   Yatovitz, too, was a valuable musical presence, and on “Take My Heart” he contributed some very tasty Les Paul styled licks on a pearl white Stratocaster.

Though most of Isaak’s songs do concern broken hearts, crying, angst and yearning, it’s hard to actually believe that a guy with that much style, charisma, and talent would be so blue.  Perhaps the truth is that he has really honed the craft of writing this type of sad love song.   Two of his tunes, “Wicked Game” and “Blue Hotel” are exceptional tracks, featuring hauntingly beautiful chords, and words that conjure up a very beautiful, wide open sense of loneliness and despair. “Wicked Game” is his best known hit and was very well received.

To make a retro presentation and not be perceived as contrived cannot be easy.  It’s a fine line for a performer to walk, but Isaak has been dancing along it expertly for over 25 years.    Transcending the moment, he simply drew his audience in on Tuesday night to everything he played.

The show was opened by Louisiana soul singer Mark Broussard.   He and his band turned in a restrained set of nicely arranged tunes.  But it wasn’t until the last song that the band began to cut loose.  It was a direction they should follow a bit sooner in future performances.

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