Chris Isaak owes a big debt to Sun records. His look and his sound would have been right at home at the label's tiny Memphis studio in the '50s. To pay back some of that debt, last year Isaak recorded Beyond the Sun, a collection of covers paying homage to the stars who recorded there in its heyday.
For this project, Isaak incorporates his own derivative work as well. Isaak's vocals are a blend of Roy Orbison and Elvis, backed by a band that brings to mind Los Straitjackets, a mix of surf and rockabilly. His look incorporates Roy's pompadour, Elvis' aw-shucks demeanor, and glittery suits like Webb Pierce sported on the Grand Ole Opry.
For his live Sun tribute, recorded in February at Austin's Moody Theater, Isaak is clad in a Western cut, rhinestone studded suit that looks like it was lifted from Porter Wagoner’s closet. But before he can start paying off his debt, Isaak tells his DVD audience in an interview taped after the show that “If you people don’t come out and support the arts, then I’m just wandering about town in a sequined suit.”
The singer wanders around in his sparkly suit serenading the audience with a string of his own hits before he gets around to honoring Sun, showing off his yodeling skills on “Somebody’s Cryin’,” getting the women all worked up when he hits his dreamy falsetto chorus on “Wicked Game,” his sequined suit twinkling in the stage lights.
“Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing” shows off Isaak’s vocal range from a Captain Beefheart growl to yet another bout of high pitched yodeling on the choruses, taking it so far up at one point he sounds like a fire engine siren.
He finally gets around to some Sun music after another post-show interview quoting Sun owner Sam Phillips saying he doesn't listen to much music,but “I listen to Chris Isaak,” a response Isaak says was like getting “a Grammy, a gold record and a million dollars.”
His tribute kicks off with Sun alumnus Johnny Cash's “Ring Of Fire,” and even though the trumpets are a synthesized imitation and Isaak’s version is higher pitched, it's every bit as as emotional as Cash’s, as the band chugs behind him in a perfect, low key imitation of the Tennessee Three.
“It’s Now Or Never“ is a note-perfect Elvis impersonation down to he sob in his voice. But Isaak doesn’t play it for laughs, doing it straight all the way through with a big, full-throated Elvis at the top of his powers Vegas finish.
Isaak slips back into his own material for “Live It Up.” “Some people like this thing where the guitar plays a lot-not to my personal taste,” Isaak says sarcastically, as lead guitarist Hershel Yatovitz gets loose in the crowd, rockin’ in the isles while Isaak stays put, belting out hardcore rockabilly.
He dishes up another dose of red hot rockabilly about a no good woman.“So many songs have been written about caring, nurturing women-this is not one of those, Isaak says, introducing “Miss Pearl,” which sounds like something Elvis would have loved to do pelvis thrusts and twitches to in the fifties.
Isaak puts down his guitar to do Jerry Lee Lewis' “Great Balls of Fire” as fire shoots out of the top of Scott Plunkett's piano and he gets his foot up on the keyboard for some Jerry Lee flourishes.
Although he clowns around on his tunes, mugging and dancing with the band, Isaak plays it straight on the covers, note for note reproductions as short and succinct as their original 45 versions. “Oh Pretty Woman” sounds just like Roy's original, no frills, no improvisation,with Isaak covering Orbison's incredible vocal range, from the top of the down to Roy’s throaty growl. “We don't do a cheesy bar band version,” Isaak says. “Our hearts are in it ,we work on it, and I think we got it pretty good.”
Even on his own stuff, Isaak pays tribute to his Sun idols.“Blue Hotel” is a tune Elvis would have been perfectly at home with, a heartbroken vocal backed by a Ventures surf rock melody. “Wide Wonderful World” would also have gotten the King's approval, a perfect closer to his Vegas shows and an appropriate end to Isaak's.
As good as it is, it could have been better. Even though it's billed as Beyond the Sun Live, it doesn't contain all the material on the CD. “Great Balls of Fire,” “It's Now Or Never,”“Ring Of Fire” are the only covers recovered here. You have to get the CD to get “I Walk the Line,” “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” “Can't Help Falling In Love With You,” and other Sun performers' treasures. And there's stuff missing on this one from the version that appeared on PBS stations in June with the same title, including Wanda Jackson singing “Fujiama Mama" and Isaak's soulful Elvis cover on “I Can't Help Falling In Love With You.”
There's only one sensible solution. Get all three and soak up all the Sun's rays, Chris Isaak style.