Chris Isaak & Silvertone House of Blues October 17, 2010
Aftermath would like to get a look at Chris Isaak's business card sometime. We're assuming he has one. Mostly, we're wondering what it would say underneath his name: "Musician," "Entertainer" or perhaps both.
Based on Isaak and longtime band Silvertone's career-spanning two-hour set at House of Blues Sunday - which tossed in a handful of covers from Roy Orbison and Elvis (twice) to James Brown and Texas icons the Sir Douglas Quintet - Aftermath would put our money on the latter. As much as it matters, "Entertainer" would come first, too - and not for alphabetical reasons.
That doesn't mean Isaak is a hack. Far from it.
His voice can still raise the hairs on a vampire's neck, and 25 years after releasing his first album, his catalog is deep enough to allow him to dispatch biggest hit "Wicked Game," gracefully and hauntingly, a mere 30 minutes into the show.
Closer to the truth, we would say, is that Isaak realizes what a talented crew of musicians he has around him. His gentle needling of keyboardist Scotty Plunkett and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz and Martin-and-Lewis repartee with drummer Kenny Dale Johnson, it seemed to us, was his way of reflecting the spotlight that would naturally find someone with such wholesome matinee-idol looks onto the guys who do the real heavy lifting.
Plus, whenever you do things like walk out in the crowd during Elvis' "Love Me Tender" or bring a couple of ladies onstage to dance during "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing," it's not like you're hurting for attention in the first place.
Besides being one of the few rock and roll bands left with a genuine ear for jazz, Johnson's fluid brushwork and a few of Plunkett's organ lines in particular, Silvertone is equally adept at country. "Western Stars," which Isaak asked his band to "try to at least tie" the version recorded by k.d. lang, moseyed in from some lost Gene Autry movie about three-quarters through the set.
And as for blues, besides the come-hither boogie of "Bad, Bad Thing," we got a real treat when Isaak stopped Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas" about halfway through. The singer wondered "Why am I singing the Texan song?" - just one of several times his deadpan banter reminded Aftermath of another Texan, Steve Martin - and allowed Johnson to revisit his '70s Austin roots via Alvin Crow's tongue-in-cheek "Nyquil Blues."
And - big surprise here - they sparkled on the ballads, not just "Game" and "Love Me Tender," but "Somebody's Crying" from 1995's Forever Blue and "Worked It Out Wrong," which found Johnson, Yatovitz and bassist Roly Salley contributing backup three-part harmony over Plunkett's gospel piano. The sprawling "Suspicious Minds" sequel from last year's Mr. Lucky, "Cheater's Town," too. Pretty, pretty stuff - near the end, one woman remarked to Aftermath that she had already burst into tears. Twice.
But it was the rockabilly burners that really put on the gas for us: Opener "Lonely With a Broken Heart"; the "Wicked Game" bookends of Forever Blue's "Go Walking Down There" and the title cut from 1998's Speak of the Devil; "You Don't Cry Like I Do" right before "Bad Thing." The Sha Na Na choreography was a little goofy - front, back and side to side, as Bun B might say - but the music wasn't.
That's the thing. These guys know they're retro; they wouldn't wear Nudie suits (Isaak) and flame-embroidered matching outfits (the rest) otherwise. It didn't take long into Sunday's set for Aftermath to realize this is as close as we'll ever come to seeing Rick Nelson circa "Lonesome Town," especially on encores "Blue Hotel" and "San Francisco Days."
But it takes more than moxie and slick outfits to cover Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and "It's Now or Never" and elevate it above tribute-band pastiche. It takes chops, something Isaak and his mates have and probably don't get credited often enough for.
Given its romantic, balladic nature, it wouldn't have taken much for most of Sunday's set, fast or slow song, to lapse into easy-listening/adult-contemporary territory. Instead, in such capable hands, even the dull moments - of which there were precious few - were cooler than they had to be. The cool moments, meanwhile, were very cool indeed, daddy-o.
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Personal Bias: Aftermath was almost as big a fan of Isaak's Showtime comedy series that ran for three seasons, and in fact still owns a couple of press-screener episodes on VHS. We keep hoping they'll release it on DVD, but so far no dice.
The Crowd: Maybe 70 percent full, and 70 percent of that women over 40.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I thought this would be later" (about "Wicked Game").
Random Notebook Dump: We also enjoyed the shiny "Two Hearts" and Johnson's animated cover of the Rivieras' "California Sun" ("I'm going out West where I belong...") with Isaak on drums, although his face sure did get red while he was running around onstage like that.