Within the first 15 minutes of what turned out to be a two-hour show, Chris Isaak, looking resplendent in a rhinestone-studded suit, stepped down from the stage and began working his way through the crowd. Mic in hand, arms outstretched, he made eyes at the women and shook hands with the men. He sang as he walked, every note coming out crystalline, never missing a beat or an instrumental cue. And as he approached my aisle, I found myself getting swept up in it all in spite of myself and my better judgment.
You see, I knew damn well the whole time that nearly every showcase and show stopping exercise had been carefully choreographed well beforehand, right down to the last detail. The night wasn’t about spontaneity in the least. In fact, it wasn’t about the present moment at all. Isaak’s July 28 performance at the Palladium was about resurrection and resuscitation. It was an attempt to summon the spirits of rock’s past, to commune and connect with the ghosts of Elvis and Roy Orbison.
Now, here’s where things get a little muddled. At its best, Isaak’s original work has never been that simple. Because he exists in the present moment (whether he likes it or not), he’s been able to invest tried and true forms (most often Sun-style rockabilly or Orbison-esque balladry) with a sense of soul-deep alienation that’s completely absent from those foundational records. Songs like “Wicked Game” and “Blue Hotel” work so well because they’re at once totally familiar in their form and utterly unique in their impact.
At this night’s performance, when the music took center stage, Isaak was able to accomplish this feat with striking regularity. His ace backing band, a five piece outfit (not including Isaak’s own guitar), tackled the material with both passion and precision. Isaak’s vocals, which I had always secretly feared were the result of some kind of studio trickery, were often impossibly strong and never less than mightily impressive.
Still, it was too often the case that the music was not the primary focus. In the second half of the show, which was largely devoted to unquestionably expert covers of rock ‘n’ roll staples (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “Oh, Pretty Woman”, etc.), gimmickry seemed to win the day. Finally, when smoke began to billow out from the piano during an otherwise terrific set-closing rendition of “Great Balls of Fire”, it got to be too much.
To be fair, no one in the audience had any such gripes to make during the show—we were engaged in and engrossed with the revival. But as I exited the auditorium, I couldn’t help but feel that the performance amounted to a missed opportunity. Isaak could have done with this concert what he’s consistently done with his recordings—make new out of old and render strange the familiar. It’s possible I’m mistaken and this concert was in fact an elaborate conceptual coup, a knowing reworking of the performance styles of Isaak’s idols. But I don’t think I am and I don’t think it was.