Chris Isaak: The Manship Theatre, Baton Rouge, LA, 11/11/11

Somewhere near the end of his set, Chris Isaak stopped and talked to the audience about the lack of love songs on the radio; that somewhere along the way they got lost and “We got so fast and so sarcastic”. His facial expression appeared genuinely troubled by this fact, a sincere loss in a world gone blatantly angry and spiteful. But Isaak was here in Baton Rouge tonight to remind us that not all love songs were silly and he set forth with his beautiful guitar to sing “How’s The World Treating You” which held a lovely melody to inspire belief in those love songs once again.

Isaak, the man whose voice is still the elixir of the gods, almost seems out of place in a world rocking hard. His voice a quiver on the lips of old Memphis sounds, the California native is bringing back music in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He is a natural throwback to what used to be, in style ala his Nudie red suit, vocal chords just this side of Roy Orbison and a hip swivel Elvis would be proud of. With a new album called Beyond The Sun, Isaak has sprinkled his current set with Sun Studio staples, an homage to the songs he recorded at the famed Memphis landmark such as “Ring Of Fire”, “Dixie Fried” and “It’s Now Or Never”, which all sounded fresh and lively in their faithful reinterpretations live featuring the added spunkability of Isaak’s stellar band: Hershel Yatovitz on guitar, Scott Plunkett smoking, literally, on piano and keyboards, bass player Rowland Salley striking rock star poses while pulling some heavy duty bass tones, and Kenny Dale Johnson keeping the beat in more ways than one.

Isaak has had the pleasure, or pain, of being insanely famous at one time. With a sizzling video accompanying one of the sexiest songs ever written, he became the preeminent sex symbol for sultry odes of love and heartbreak. And then he went back to being Chris Isaak, the man who still hangs onto songs from his past as inspiration for his future, and holds them close to his heart. “The music you grew up with stays with you the rest of your life,” he acknowledged as his stage was being transformed behind him into a replica of 1950’s era Sun Studio. A piano was brought out for Plunkett and a stand-up bass was handed to Salley. The sounds and the vibes from this simplest of moves brought home the viability of these early rockers and was highly lauded by the crowd who twisted and shouted as Plunkett’s piano started billowing smoke along to his Jerry Lee Lewis moves during “Great Balls Of Fire”.

The camaraderie amongst the band was so visibly apparent you knew instantly they are still having fun after all these years. Maybe even more so today than back in the frenetic days of Isaak idolatry when fair-weather fans would have been content for Isaak to just stand there and sing “Wicked Game” over and over in his undershirt. Pleasing his admirers today is about connection and good music. He has a Martin and Lewis repartee with drummer Johnson, which usually ends up with Isaak being the butt of the joke. And his snippets leading into songs were fun and family-oriented … except for the part where he pretty much called the title temptress “Miss Pearl” a slut in so many words. “But she’s bad and no good”, he stressed while shaking his head.

Coming out in a red-hot Porter Wagoner-styled ensemble, upon spying cameras in the hands of a few, he coaxed them into taking as many photos as they wanted: “I didn’t put this suit on for nothing”, he quipped. He would make a disco ball-like re-entrance for the encore in a mini-mirror-plated suit shooting bolts of reflected light throughout the intimate theatre. Getting everyone in a good-time mood, his opening repertoire included “Beautiful Homes”, “Dancing”, “Somebody’s Crying” and “I Want Your Love” which had Yatovitz doing his “dance of love”. “If you enjoy him, you can take him home,” deadpanned  Isaak.

The musical fun, and Isaak’s sense of dry self-deprecating humor, would continue to the end. In full hickified bonhomie, he mimicked a young girl’s explanation to her “Memaw” that she did NOT go to some rock & roll concert and did NOT fall in love with someone on stage: “He’s not a musician … he’s a bass player”, Isaak     joked when introducing his hit “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing”. During “Don’t Leave Me On My Own”, he roamed through the crowd, serenading some lucky females, and for the aforementioned “Baby” he invited up a particularly vivacious young woman to dance with him on stage, probably getting more than he bargained for when she out-jitterbugged his band and made him a human stripper pole.

But the real highlight of Isaak’s first ever visit to Baton Rouge was his honest and pure vocals. No one sings like Chris Isaak anymore. No one can bring a shiver up the spine like he does via the moody “Blue Hotel” and the romantic “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” with the simplest of octave changes. His rocking spirit comes out on “Speak Of The Devil”, his rockabilly genuineness breaks free with “American Boy” and his painful longing echoes forth during his closing number, “Forever Blue”, a humble man with a lonely acoustic guitar and a timeless voice searching for the love songs of the past.

Beautiful Homes, Dancing, Somebody’s Crying, Don’t Leave Me On My Own, I Want Your Love, San Francisco Days, Wicked Game, Speak Of The Devil, Let Me Down Easy, Go Walking Down There, American Boy, Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing, 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, I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, Oh Pretty Woman, Forever Blue

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