HUBER HEIGHTS – The haunting guitar sounds and falsetto notes of Chris Issak and his band played Rose Music Center at The Heights Tuesday night as part of a two-concert swing through Ohio. Issak’s “First Comes the Night” national tour will make a stop near Cleveland in Northfield tonight, July 13, less than a week before the Republican National Convention.
Presenting new music with a strong Nashville flair, Issak’s performance paid tribute to Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.
Best known for his songs “Wicked Game” – a steamy 1989 beach video romp shot in black and white with model Helena Christensen – and “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” – featured in the 1999 movie Eyes Wide Shut – Isaak mixed his own rock-a-billy classics with sampling of Orbison and Lewis while adding his own new material such as”Insects.” Isaak explained the lyric “Bad ideas are like insects on the windshield of my mind,” telling the crowd he was perfectly sober when he dreamed it up. Isaak compared splattered insects to bad relationships, joking “now you’re stuck there and I’m gonna have to love you one more time.”
But his soul was also on display. Isaak also encouraged couples attending the concert to embrace and “show your love, because you never know what’s coming next in life.”
Known for his clean lifestyle and San Francisco area roots, 60-year-old Isaak – clad in his trademark red wool suit studded with bold, folksy stitching and rhinestones – survived a baking Ohio sun while on stage Tuesday evening. He quipped with a salty tone but sultry voice, “there is a cool breeze no where near me.” Eventually he shed the suit coat.
Intervals of gentle sarcasm about current events – such as threats to build a wall on the Mexican border and the latest Pokemon craze that has people wandering the streets with eyes widely glued to their cell phones – served as transitions in the music. As part of the “Great Balls of Fire” set, a piano was partially set ablaze just for show. Women swayed dreamily to the love ballads, but it was the men in the crowd who jumped to their feet and gleefully put their hands in the air during “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing.”
Isaak mused between songs, “beginning to communicate usually means a relationship in ending.” It was a soft wrapper on the familiar hard-luck, country love song story line he sampled in Nashville.
Celebrating the “civilized” behavior of the Dayton-area crowd, Isaak seemed to be alluding remorsefully to the recent violent outbreaks across the country. His performance is boldly retro nostalgia, an apparent comfort for many during this period of social upheaval. He explained to the audience that Orbison was a nice person both on-stage and off-stage. “Sometimes off-stage some of these guys you’d like to take an ice-pick to them,” Isaak joked, referring to monster egos in the music business.
His own band is mostly the same group that was featured in his Showtime 2001-2004 network series The Chris Isaak Show: drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, bassist Rowland Salley and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, with Scott Plunkett on the keyboard in place of the actor who played “Anson” on Showtime. Isaak accused ladies in the front row of “undressing his bass player with their eyes,” but it was yet another of his soft-edged pieces of humor designed to take the spotlight off himself.
Isaak’s gentle lampooning of his veteran group members’ quirks belies the deep commitment he demonstrates by being the consummate bandleader instead of yet another musician on an ego-gratification tour. His self-deprecating style on stage plays down his own heart-throb status among the middle-aged ladies with VIP passes who swooned over him Tuesday night from the front row.
“This is the best in state-fair quality entertainment you’ll see,” he joked, noting it was not the kind of show Beyoncé fans would enjoy.
His insanely ostentatious mirror-panel suit opened the second set with flair. Fans near the front of the amphitheater were invited on-stage to dance. One made the mistake of bringing her beer. Isaak placed her beer cup on the stage floor in front of him and said, “Couldn’t you do without your beer long enough to come up here? After you dance, you can have the beer back again.” She danced, he returned her beer and she offered it to the band. Isaak quipped that he’s been arrested twice, but never for “getting high.”
As the half moon was rising and the heat was subsiding, Isaak thanked his fans for coming out – although the amphitheater was far from full. Hundreds of cell phones had captured video clips and digital photos being posted to Facebook instantaneously. Isaak’s performance lasted for approximately 100 minutes, and then he said farewell and packed up his heart-shaped world to display at the next show. Along the tour route, he said his bassist would be reading Bible verses aloud in his motel room instead of entertaining the band’s drooling groupies.
The wild world of music is indeed a wicked game.