By Doug Koztoski
On an unseasonably cool late August night in Vienna, Virginia, Chris Isaak and his crew heated up the stage at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center with a smooth blend of classic song covers and a cherry-picked assortment of the California-based crooner’s catalog of 12 albums which include many styles of rock.
Starting the show with “Beautiful Homes,” a frequent opener for this year’s tour, Isaak could not have picked a better song for this affluent bedroom community venue, nestled about a half hour from the nation’s capital and just a few acres through the woods from some eye-catching homesteads.
Wearing one of his trademark suits, this one blue, adorned with several sequins, the singer took several moments throughout the show to address the audience, and often his bandmates, in his playful style, including assuring the crowd early on that in no way shape or form did he condone the trapping of wolves, especially while playing at Wolf Trap.
After “Homes,” the band plowed through “I Believe,” “Two Hearts,” and “Live It Up” before getting to “Ring of Fire,” their first cover. Johnny Cash, who made “Ring” a hit in the early 1960s, would likely have been proud of Isaak’s rendition.
The Carl Perkins cover, “Dixie Fried” came next and it was another fun choice as Isaak and his band of three decades put their own stamp on recreating the magic of the 1950’s rockabilly tune. Adding to that song, JD McPherson, who led his rock and blues band in an impressive opening act, came onstage to help out after exchanging entertaining banter with Isaak.
“Blue Hotel” and “San Francisco Days” were soon bracketed by a pair of Isaak’s biggest hits: “Somebody’s Crying” and “Wicked Game,” the latter with the haunting guitar work and range of singing that Isaak and Co. pulled off with aplomb, like the entire 26 songs over two hours they did that evening.
A pair of other covers that he nailed that night originated via Roy Orbison: “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Only The Lonely.” Depending on the song, Isaak hit the high or long notes that did Orbison’s legacy justice.
One of Isaak’s traits that stood out throughout the performance was his taking his music seriously, but not himself. And, he shared the spotlight well with his band. About mid-show, in fact, bassist Rowland Salley played one of his own songs, “Killing The Blues,” which has also been covered by several artists including John Prine and Robert Plant.
Late in the main set, which also deserves acknowledgment for a crisp audio mix, came “Down in Flames, which was one of only a handful that Isaak played from his 2015 album, his most recent, titled “First Comes The Night.”
“Down In Flames” not only has an up-tempo 50s-style Elvis vibe to it, complete with backup vocals reminiscent of Presley’s backup group The Jordanaires, but the song also mentions The King of Rock and Roll, as well as deftly working in references to Julius Caesar, Marilyn Monroe and Hank Williams.
The main set wrapped with another of the tunesmith’s most recognizable creations, “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing,” which inspired much of the crowd to get up and dance once again.
The lights then went down and in about the time it takes for most pop songs to play on the radio or through one’s website of choice, the band was back on stage for the encore, as Isaak sported a suit of mirrors, each mirror looked to be about the size of a stick of gum. They played a trio of songs starting with “Big Wide Wonderful World,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “The Way Things Really Are,” the show-ender another song from his latest album.
As the encore unfolded, where it appeared every audience member was on their feet, and could seemingly catch a glimpse of themselves smiling in the reflection of Isaak’s suit, the lasting memory for most likely the majority in attendance was the singer’s “Game” remains “Wicked.”