Friday, July 22, 2011

Chris Isaak concert review

Photo by Kwaku Alson/
A version of my review originally appeared at 

During a thoroughly enjoyable Pacific Amphitheatre show on Wednesday night, Chris Isaak joked about deep fried butter and other Orange County Fair details. He apparently keeps up with the new culinary delights - or horrors, depending on your outlook - and activities.

No surprise there: the gregarious Bay Area resident has returned to Costa Mesa every couple years since the outdoor venue reopened for brief summer runs in ‘03.

Isaak’s lovelorn music went down just as smoothly as the food spread. While his heavenly falsetto voice got a good workout and several sustained notes proved amazing (“Dancin’”; still spellbinding hit single “Wicked Game,” placed in the usual “lucky” seventh slot, had everyone in rapt attention), the 95-minute set was hardly a ballad fest.

Longtime backing band Silvertone, all clad in matching suits, were tight and energetic, infusing much of the music with a classic rock ‘n’ roll vibe.

Looking sharp as always in slicked back hair and a sequined turquoise suit, the seemingly ageless singer/guitarist/actor/TV host (now 55) devoted a quarter of the concert to successful mid-1990s albums Forever Blue and San Francisco Days.

Surprisingly, Isaak barely touched upon biggest seller Heart Shaped World or winsome 2009 studio effort Mr. Lucky, which featured duets with Trisha Yearwood and Michelle Branch. A murky, bass heavy mix also overwhelmed the sound at first, but those minor quibbles didn’t detract from any momentum.

Isaak and bassist Rowland Salley never stood still for long. The front man swiveled his hips Elvis Presley-style, prompting female squeals and the pair did synchronized moves alongside lead guitarist Hershel Yatovitz. Early on, fans at the back of the terrace section got an up close and person serenade for “Don’t Leave Me on My Own.”

Two ladies were invited onstage to dance amid an extended take on the bluesy, John Lee Hooker-inspired “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” (after watching one overzealous woman get a little too close for comfort with Isaak and being reined in by a stagehand, someone in my row thought she was planted; I felt she was simply too excited).

Then the band huddled close, switched to mostly acoustic instruments and a neon “Memphis Recording Service” sign suddenly sprang up behind. A delightful stripped down segment previewing Isaak’s upcoming double album Beyond the Sun followed.

Due out this fall, the covers collection was recorded at the famous Sun Studio in Tennessee and pays tribute to artists that recorded there in the 1950s and ‘60s. Isaak provided background on the songs, including why Carl Perkins’ innocuous “Dixie Fried” was banned from the radio back then.

“Ring of Fire” was done Johnny Cash-style. The romantic “How’s the World Treating You” – penned by Chet Atkins and popularized by Eddy Arnold and Presley – was elevated by the band’s sleek backing vocals; especially drummer Kenney Dale Johnson. Keeping on The King trajectory (something he’s adept at), Isaak nailed “It’s Now or Never” and later, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Keyboardist Scott Plunkett excelled throughout the evening with some feisty Hammond B-3 work and barrelhouse piano on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” where the large crowd dutifully sang, danced and watched smoke pour out of Plunkett’s instrument (better that than the awful BBQ smoke from elsewhere on the fairgrounds).

For the encores, Yatovitz did some tasty surf guitar licks on the moody “Blue Hotel” as his boss re-entered wearing his trademark mirrored suit and wailed on the vocals. A jubilant version of Isaak idol Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” kept the party going. Finally, Isaak appeared solo on acoustic guitar during his standard stark closer, “Forever Blue.” 

Chris Isaak, Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa, July 20, 2011
Setlist: Beautiful Homes/Dancin’/Somebody’s Crying/Don’t Leave Me on My Own/I Want Your Love/San Francisco Days/Wicked Game/Speak of the Devil/Flying/You Don’t Cry Like I Do/Go Walking Down There/American Boy/Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing/Please Don’t Ever Say Goodbye/Ring of Fire/Dixie Fried/How’s the World Treating You/It’s Now or Never/Miss Pearl/Great Balls of Fire
Encore: Blue Hotel/Big Wide Wonderful World/Can’t Help Falling in Love/Oh Pretty Woman/Forever Blue

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