How many musicians could promise a song that includes Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, JFK, and Hank Williams, and actually deliver on that promise?
Chris Isaak, stopping by Hard Rock Live at the Rocksino on Wednesday night, did just that. He made good on that promise, providing a tune that was neither satire or a firmly-planted tongue stuck somewhere in the side of his cheek.
Isaak, perhaps best known for his rockabilly/surf rock/Sun Records-inspired hits from the early ’90s, took to the stage with his band Silvertone, who have been playing together, intact, since 1985. And boy, it shows.
I’ve been to well over fifty shows so far this year and have been lucky to see such stellar performances from Dolly Parton, Chris Botti, Alice Cooper, and the Chick Corea Trio. I’ll have to add last night’s show among the top two or three that I’ve seen so far in 2016. Isaak and his band have something thats’s sorely missing on many of today’s stages: An abundance of natural, raw talent. His vocals, for a man of sixty years old, are astonishing. His falsetto is, perhaps, second to Roy Orbison in the annals of popular music.
When the band tore into “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” Isaak went from the gravelly-voiced bridge to a high-pitched tenor without coughing or relieving his voice with a Luden’s cough drop. That’s tough to do.
At the beginning of the evening, he promised some solid “semi-professional entertainment,” perhaps not as good as Lady Gaga, he intoned, but “probably on the level of a state fair.” His deadpan, self-deprecating humor reminded the audience that not only is he a singer, but parlayed his stage presence into a successful acting career. Check out his “The Chris Isaak Show,” which ran on Showtime for several years earlier this century, if you get the opportunity.
The setlist was peppered with a few Sun Records covers, most notably “Great Balls of Fire” and “Pretty Woman.” Multi-talented musician Scott Plunkett tore into some honky tonk piano-playing on the Jerry Lee Lewis tune and then took up the squeeze box for a few songs later in the show.
With obvious comparisons to Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, Isaak’s voice (and pompadour, of course) did justice to “Fools Rush In” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” But where he really shined was with his own material; the reverb on “Wicked Game” was, uh, pretty wicked. During “Forever Blue” the lighting package dimmed to tones of blue and his voice matched the recording of almost three decades ago. I think it’s okay to say that his voice, kinda like a casked double malt scotch, has only gotten better with age.
In an age of auto-tuned voices and lip-synching, it’s such a joy to hear a band like Isaak and Silvertone. If you ever get the opportunity to see them live, jump on it.