“I once was told that the music you fell in love with as a child stays with you your whole life… and for me, that was Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Elvis”. It was midway through Chris Isaak’s set when he made the personal confession, abruptly pulling a 180 on the tone of the show from an irreverent “best of” platform with a mix of Christmas tunes for the few wearing their holiday sweaters to a living tribute to the storied music of Sun Records. Last October, Isaak released Beyond the Sun (Vanguard), a collection of covers from the greats of his youth and recorded in the famed Memphis studio. The idea was inspired after he had read a 2000-era interview from label owner Sam Phillips who claimed Isaak was one of the only contemporary artists he bothered to listen to.
It’s not a stretch to think the American rock icon who, at 55, has single-handedly kept the early rockabilly style on the radio with top market songs like “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” and “Somebody’s Cryin”, would find his hands in this project; the real surprise would be discovering just how well he could imbibe its spirit.
As stagehands rolled out a portable piano and polished double bass, large blinds behind the six-man band opened to reveal a flickering florescent sign declaring this a Memphis Sun recording session, the audience were the benefactors of being a fly on the wall. If there was charisma underlining Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (Isaak’s three-piece red suit with burning, sequin flame details served as a nice accompaniment), there was nostalgic homage in Carl Perkins’ “Dixie Fried” as Isaak relayed the story behind the once radio-banned song. Elvis Presley’s’ “How’s the World Treating You” came next followed by an explosive “Great Balls of Fire” (Jerry Lee Lewis) that quite literally set the piano on fire… by LED-lights, that is. This second set of the night could have easily mirrored a swagger-less LIFE CD infomercial, yet Isaak and his crew of sweat-browed musicians pulled the rabbit perfectly out of the hat as the on-their-feet crowd scratched their eyes at the illusion of a music mausoleum come to life.
“Call your babysitter and tell them you’re staying out later tonight,” Isaak declared to the largely middle-aged fans, equally content with his own performance to keep the momentum going. “They can just give the kids a little gin and it will put them right to sleep”.
Humor quickly became the cornerstone of the night from a humble star who never took himself too seriously—a trait that made Isaak even more dashing than his sidetrack movie career would have us believe. The sleeper town of Skokie where the show was held often became the butt of his jokes. “You don’t start off by going straight to Skokie,” Isaak chided the Chicago suburb, “first there’s Paris and New York”. Yet even Isaak couldn’t deny the North Shore Center for the Performing Art’s impeccable sound-system, attuned to register the subtle twangs and southern yodels tucked into the fibers of Isaak and his “CHRIS” emblazoned guitar strap. The stage was more professional than most of Chicago’s venerable venues anyway. The show could have been on a Studio City Late Night lot while the burning embers of the Hollywood movie light props transmitted a halo of grandiosity and vintage charm that continued beyond the Sun Records’ covers to Isaak’s own material, a strong rival for the crowd’s affection.
The Isaak-material act commenced with “Beautiful Homes” and wrapped an octave lower with the growl of “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing”. Some “Dancin’”, “Cryin” and “Wicked Games” was mixed in between, the latter so visceral and visual it felt like, well, rolling around in the sand with Helena Christensen.
Isaak quickly glossed over the fact that 2011 marked his 25th anniversary perhaps because he is not bogged down by the routine quarter life crisis that afflicts many others in his position: He has released the greatest hits, found creative control over his latest album, is still able to sell out a tour, and even starred in a Friends episode. He does a little hip shake and women melt; he sits on a fan’s lap during a cover of “Blue Christmas” and women melt; he dresses in a flamboyant mirrorball suit for his encore, and yep, women melt. Remind you of anyone?
If Elvis had the longevity Isaak did, he might be making the same comments about the crooner as Sam Phillips did recently. So when Isaak propped himself on a stool, acoustic in hand and a big blowup Liz Taylor doll behind him to sing the morosely beautiful “Forever Blue”, the moment had the audience scratching their heads once again, because all they could see was the warmth of 25 impeccable years behind rose-colored glasses.