Chris Isaak woos in concert Friday at Hill Auditorium
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
You really have to hand it to Chris Isaak.
The guy knows his audience and he’s developed a formula that combines equal parts serviceable retro roots rock, Borscht Belt comedy and his impossibly good looks into a can’t-miss live show.
And if he didn’t seem like the genuinely nicest guy in show business, you might resent him his success.
As it was on Friday at Hill Auditorium, it was impossible not to be enchanted by Isaak as he crooned and lampooned his way through a two-hour, 27-song set that was long on charm, if, perhaps, a little short on substance.
In truth, Isaak’s charm helped him rise to something more than the sum of his parts. Not as effortlessly cool as Elvis, not quite the singer (but close) that Roy Orbison was, or the songwriter that Hank Williams was (or, let’s face it, quite as butch as k.d. lang is) Isaak combines enough each of these performers’ personas to rise above any limitations.
And the dude can sing. Songs like the signature “Wicked Game,” “Blue Hotel” and “I Want Your Love” found him sliding effortlessly from his supple alto voice into the best falsetto you’re likely to hear.
Chris Isaak performing “Blue Hotel” live in Russia this spring:
Stylistically, Isaak is hard to pin down, too. In this Ann Arbor Summer Festival “post season” performance, he swung between country, gospel, blues and the kind of smooth, retro rockabilly that is his stock and trade. And his band, which displayed the kind of easy rapport that comes with a quarter century of touring together, was quick to adapt, even as he occasionally strayed from the set list.
In fact, the most charming moment of the show came early, when Isaak coaxed guitarist Hershel Yatovitz to strum “Love Me Tender” on acoustic guitar, while the singer jumped from the stage and crooned his way through the audience, not stopping until he was singing a verse from the upper balcony.
“It’s a long ways up here,” he said. “I don’t think I want to come down.”
In a way, he never did. His performance seemed to gather momentum throughout, the main set finally ending with Isaak and band sharing the stage with a dancing fan plucked from the audience, but also a preschooler who happened to be in the front row with a toy guitar. It was the kind of moment that, had it been planned, would have reeked of pretension.
That it was organic and in the moment made for a special experience in what was, ultimately, a special performance.
Will Stewart is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com.