Chris Isaak, Live at The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater , Friday, September 14, 2012
Chris Isaak is at his best when he’s going back to basics. Of course, that’s no surprise. Well before he released his most recent album, a collection of remade Rock ‘n’ Roll standards entitled Beyond the Sun, he excelled at revisiting a style flush with classic rock appeal. Boasting a cool croon, matinee idol good looks, and a veteran backing band that’s adroit at recapturing the moves and grooves that their retro stance demands, Isaak comes across with a rare combination of charisma and charm.
Those attributes were on ample display at the Fillmore on Miami Beach, plied before an adoring crowd that seemed fixated on every move Isaak had to offer. He and his band commanded the stage, which was alternately decorated like a fancy New York nightclub and later, the Memphis recording studio from which that recent album got its name. Isaak and his colleagues posed and postured via playful choreography, and consistently got up close and personal with the audience, both by venturing out into the aisles and at one point inviting a bevy of local woman (and one guy for equal time) up on the stage to shimmy and shake to their boogie-based standard, “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing.”
All the while, Isaak successfully demonstrated the good-natured, boy next door charm that not only earned him his devotees, but also a series of roles on both the big screen and small screen alike. It’s the easy, affable approach that’s garnered him a steadfast following over the course of a nearly 30-year career, one that’s clearly in no danger of subsiding. And yet, his self-effacing humor makes it clear — onstage and off, FYI — that he’s one of those rare artists who’s not absorbed with his own stardom. Resplendent in a baby blue sequined suit — the jacket was eventually discarded and the whole outfit exchanged for a dazzling, seemingly mirrored ensemble for the encore — Isaak frequently engaged in some self-effacing humor. “Thanks for coming out,” he said, expressing gratitude that the audience had chosen to support live music and the arts. “If you didn’t come tonight, I’d just be wandering around the beach in this sequin suit with nothing to do.” Later, when the band began teasing him about his choice of wardrobe, he took pains to point out that most professional figure skaters wore something similar.
To his credit, Isaak also seemed content to share the spotlight, mugging with his band mates and teasing them about their equally droll personalities. Still, he couldn’t help but make fun of himself. “When I’m up here onstage singing, looking out at you, I see you looking back at me. And that’s the way I like it!” At another point, he challenged the house rule about limited photography. “I went to a lot of trouble to get all dressed up, so snap away.” he insisted. Consequently, his various forays into the audience also included pauses to pose with enthusiastic onlookers.
While the stage show was obviously geared for fun, no matter how frivolous, Isaak and company didn’t negate their chops either. After 27 years, his band has become his perfect foil, through a subtle mesh of low-cast personalities and, more importantly, their well-honed licks. Attired in matching suits, bassist Rowland Salley, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, keyboard player Scott Plunkett and percussionist Rafael Padilla (the only player who appeared to defy the uniform garment regimen) are both measured and masterful in effectively driving those indelible ‘50s flavored licks. “We’ll play our one or two good songs,” Isaak promised at the start of the set. “And if we run out of material, we can also toss in some Blue Oyster Cult and ABBA.”
Fortunately, they didn’t have to. The set was well stocked with familiar favorites — the aforementioned “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” “San Francisco Days,” “Wicked Game,” “Somebody’s Crying,” “Blue Hotel,” “Dancin’” and a formidable cache of the oldies represented on the current album — “Ring of Fire,” “Pretty Woman,” “I Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “Miss Pearl,” “It’s Now or Never” and the ultimate finale, “Great Balls of Fire,” which literally found the piano set ablaze and smoke filling the stage.
Then again, a Chris Isaak performance is simply about the music, but also the pure joy of what Isaak called “pure, clean family fun.” (“Bullshit,” Johnson shouted in response.) The emphasis is on entertainment, whether it’s through the corny jokes or the rocking, rousing sentiment. And that’s what makes Isaak’s show so indelible and enjoyable, and gave the audience such genuine delight with this long overdue, most welcome return.