A little showmanship can go a long way, and Chris Isaak has plenty of it.
Friday night before a crowd of about 900 people at the Uptown Theater, Isaak put on his usual display of music and levity. For two hours he serenaded his fans with nearly 30 songs and kept them amused and entertained throughout.
Isaak’s music pays deep respect to the taproot country and rockabilly that emerged from Sun Studios. In 2011, he released “Beyond the Sun,” a tribute to the studio’s legacy and its stars, particularly Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
He covered two Orbison songs, “Only the Lonely” and “Oh, Pretty Woman,” plus “Ring of Fire” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” and they all fit seamlessly among his own songs, like “Lover’s Game,” “This Love Will Last” and “Lie to Me.” On a few songs, he ventured into more contemporary sounds, like “Notice the Ring” and “You Don’t Cry Like I Do,” which featured some ‘80s-era rock keyboards.
Isaak was backed by his five-man band: bassist Rowland Salley, drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, pianist Scott Plunkett and percussionist Rafael Padilla. On “Only the Lonely,” Johnson left his drum kit to sing harmony. Isaak has been with the same band for decades — Salley and Johnson have been with him since the start of his career — and it shows in their easy camaraderie.
Isaak is also an actor and a showman who typically develops an easy rapport with his audiences, and this night was no different. He told a few stories, including one about his stay in Kansas City (he was here for a few days, he said), issued plenty of one-liners (including a few about his spangled jacket) and early in the show, left the stage and walked through the crowd to the back of the theater, shaking hands and posing for photographs along the way. For the encore, he changed wardrobe: into his garish mirror-suit, which flashed like a disco ball.
The crowd showed him plenty of affection in return and gave hearty approval to most of his setlist, from melancholy ballads like “Wicked Games,” his best-known song, and “Forever Blue,” which featured some lovely acoustic guitar, to rockers like “San Francisco Days” and “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing.”
His closers included “Great Balls of Fire,” another classic from a Sun Studio legend, Jerry Lee Lewis. Isaak gave it both the respect it deserves and his own fire and flavor, his way of showing that rock and roll evolves but its foundations are eternally relevant..
Gone Ridin’; Somebody’s Crying; I Believe; Don’t Leave Me On My Own; Lover’s Game; Notice the Ring; Let Me Down Easy; American Boy; Wicked Game; Goin’ Nowhere; This Love Will Last; You Don’t Cry Like I Do; Don’t Make Me Dream About You; Lie to Me; San Francisco Days; Blue Hotel; Graduation Day; Western Stars; Only the Lonely; Kansas City; Can’t Help Falling in Love; Ring of Fire; Forever Blue; You Took My Heart; Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing; Oh, Pretty Woman; Big Wide Wonderful World; Great Balls of Fire; Can’t Do a Thing (To Stop Me).