The one or two people who read this blog regularly know that my present to Christine for her recent birthday was tickets to see Chris Isaak at Wolf Trap. The show was this past Wednesday and I have to say that it was money and time well spent. I have always enjoyed Isaak’s music but never considered myself a fan; I was singing a different tune (no pun intended) when I walked out of the show. Christine and I agreed that we will make this a regular event until Isaak retires.
As with Isaak, I was familiar with the opening act, Cowboy Junkies, but could not call myself a fan. The Junkies first broke big back in the mid-80s with a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. While never really catching on in the States, their moody country-meets alternative rock sound has made them one of the most popular bands in their native Canada. They are a tight live band and write good songs, but their sound and lyrics tend toward the bleak and moody, which does not make for a rousing concert experience. I appreciated their performance more than I enjoyed it.
Isaak began his performance at 9pm sharp, following Silvertone, his crackerjack backing band, onto the stage. Dressed in a royal blue sequined suit, he launched into the rousing “American Boy” and had the crowd on their feet immediately. Over the next hour and a half, he ripped through his well-known and lesser-known numbers, including “San Francisco Days,” “Somebody’s Crying,” and, as expected, “Wicked Game,” and a blistering rendition of “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” all the while slipping in generous amounts of self-deprecating humor and joking asides to the band and audience (and unlike many musicians who try this, Isaak is actually funny).
Isaak’s sound is rooted in the whole continuum of American music, drawing on influences from blues, country, rockabilly, surf rock, jazz, and power pop; consequently, his cover choices were a wide-ranging and pleasant surprise (at least for first-timers). The second song of the night, the old standard “Return to Me,” found Isaak strolling through the crowd all the way back to the lawn seats, shaking hands, making more jokes, and eventually finding his way back around to the stage from the other side of the venue. When a woman jumped up and hugged him, Isaak retorted, “Don’t worry honey, these sequins are on nice and tight.” He also slipped in covers of Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line,” Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. In many ways Isaak is the closest thing we have to a successor for Orbison; a gifted crooner with an impressive range and the ability to hold a note for a frighteningly long time.
With justifiable pride Isaak noted that his 5 piece backing band still sports the same line-up as when they first formed more than 20 years ago. Like any band that has played together for that long, these guys sound great; and none of them is carried by the others. In addition to their considerable skills with their respective instruments, their voices harmonize well and they demonstrate an ability to improvise on the spot. They also joined in the constant joking repartee between songs. Isaak even handed the microphone over to his drummer for one song. For the encore (which began strangely enough, with a man dressed like a Mexican wrestler yelling at the audience in Spanish) Isaac returned to the stage in a mirrored suit and invited women from the audience to join the band on stage and dance to “Bonnie Bee” and “Forever Blue”.
Isaak is an entertainer rather than a performer. The difference is that a performer just shows up to do their “job” and collect their share of the tickets while an entertainer wants to be there (or at least seems to) and makes every effort to engage the crowd and insure that a good time is had by all. It was a great evening: a superb entertainer backed by a seamless band on a warm summer night in a great venue. If you get the chance to catch Isaak live, take it.