Concert Review: Chris Isaak, October 29, Massey Hall, Toronto

Chris Isaaks

I’m hard-pressed to think of a musician with a more well-rounded celebrity resume than Chris Isaak. He’s released 14 albums, has been steadily working since 1985, acted in a handful of movies (with a couple of meaty headlining roles), and had a 4-year television series profiling his life and the same band he has been working with for 27 years…and one last figure. He’s now 56 years old. That’s right…56 YEARS OLD.

Some of you may think that that’s not particularly surprising. Indeed, Isaak has been a pop culture fixture for over 23 years since Wicked Games, which cemented celebrity photographer Herb Ritts as a tour de force to be reckoned with (not to mention making Helena Christensen the source of many wet dreams that year). But when you look at him today live and in person, it’s hard to imagine he’s past his early 30’s. Part of that has to do with his youthful exuberance, perhaps avoiding cigarettes and drugs, but more than anything else it’s likely a sense of fun that’s preserving him.

The opener wasn’t billed on the ticket, so I have no idea what her name was, and remember little else than the fact that she was alone with her guitar playing a prompt 30 minute set, and clearly thought tights were pants (for the record, tights are not pants). She was clearly thrilled to have an audience of roughly 3,000 attendees listen to her play an entire set, and engaged the cordial audience with a singalong exercise. Perhaps they were thrilled to have survived the gustiness of Sandy–clearly the hall was mostly full, so I reckon they didn’t spend the day watching WPIX and getting storm-addled and crazy like I was.

Isaak and his band took stage at 9:00 PM, with an elaborate pastel-sequined black suit, witty banter and introductions to his band, and an opening number spent walking the aisles and traipsing up to the balcony to say hello to his audience. Yes, this man is a showman, and he wants to ensure you get your money’s worth when you go to see him.

The set was divided into two parts. The first, the standard faring of a “greatest hits” type of selection and the second, completely devoted to his latest release Beyond the Sun. This is sort of the opposite of what most more seasoned artists are leaning towards, but I suppose caters to a certain type of instant gratification logic that resonates with the audience. With the charisma and humor that Isaak has with his house band (the same guys that starred in the Chris Isaak show with him, and whom he revealed¬† has been with him for 27 years), it hardly matters. I’ll do my best to go through the softshoe routine through the setlist below.

His band is as follows:

Kenney Dale Johnson; drummer
Rowland Salley (referred to as “Rowlie” throughout the night); bassist
Hershel Yatovitz; guitarist
Scott Plunkett; keyboardist

Setlist (lifted from his Brussels show, which seems to largely jive with my memory of the set)


  1. American Boy – as with all of the best performers, Isaak formally introduces his band to the audience. He also thanked us for “turning of the television and supporting live music”, mildly ironic to me given the band is most recognizable from the Showtime series. Isaak walked around and went upstairs to the balcony to sing portions of the song.
  2. Pretty Girls – again, armed the knowledge that only a seasoned performer has, Isaak butters us up by comparing Toronto to Paris, New York, and Tokyo. He said he loves Canada and after shooting the Chris Isaak Show in Vancouver, Rowlie ended up moving to our fair nation.
  3. Blue Hotel
  4. We’ve Got Tomorrow
  5. I Want Your Love
  6. San Franciso Days – Isaak articulated what I have been hammering away at for the past four years–live music is an exchange between performer and listener, and if it lacks interaction there is some serious doubt cast onto how the experience might be different than hitting “play” on your stereo system. “You have to play live music and bring into it what you’d bring into a love affair”
  7. I’m Not Waiting
  8. Somebody’s Crying – Isaak asked everyone in the audience to take photos of him at one point…”I know they said no cameras, but I didn’t get all dressed up just to have you not take my picture”
  9. Wicked Game
  10. Best I Ever Had
  11. Dancin’ – Rowlie was the butt of many jokes that evening. I’ll spare you my usual need to recant every single detail, but at some point Rowlie’s sexual prowress is called into question when Isaak says he hears him crying alone every night on tour, inviting a few women in the front to join him to dance onstage, calling particular attention to one woman’s rainboots.
  12. Notice the Ring
  13. Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing – highlight of the night for me

PART 2 (largely covers from Beyond the Sun)

At this point, additional parts of the stage were set-up, including the lit-up Memphis Recording replica sign from Sun Studios, and an old timey piano. Isaak tells one montage of many that evening, recollecting his parents’ small but influential vocal record collection, most of whom were discovered by Sam Phillips and the basis of his 2011 album.

Since we were spoiled for riches for the first half of the set, understand he is passionate about this latest cover album, and the comic routine ramped up even more throughout, I will overlook the fact that these are standard covers. It’s not that I don’t like covers–in many cases I prefer them to the original source material. What I think is less interesting is when covers are largely derivative.

  1. Doin’ the Best I Can (Elvis Presley cover)
  2. Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover)
  3. Dixie Fried (Carl Perkins cover) – as a music history note, Isaak dives into the seriousness of alcoholism as a disease (ha ha), and explains the song was widely banned at the time of its release.
  4. Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis Presley cover) – at this point, Isaak advises us to look to our companion and kiss them. In my mostly empty row, I was encouraged by the fact that I was not forgotten, as he instructed those of us who came alone to ask ourselves why we were alone. Ouch.
  5. It’s Now or Never (Elvis Presley cover) – thought this was the best of the covers
  6. Live It Up
  7. Miss Pearl (Jimmy Wages cover)
  8. Great Balls Of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis cover) – the Memphis Studio piano that was brought out had series of special effects that Plunkett tinkered with–a fake fire and dry ice emulating some serious smoke for a rather literal interpretation of the song, and the show took on an even more full-service musical feel.


  1. Super Magic (short intrumental intro)
  2. Oh, Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison cover) – a huge, self-inflating 50’s cutout came to life behind the band at this point and even tapped to the percussion of the song.
  3. Big Wide Wonderful
  4. Worked It Out Wrong

With the stories, special effects, and comedy factored in, what we got was more than a mere concert. The choreography alone was seamless, and what makes these guys stand out the most is the fact that they’re having sheer, unadulterated FUN up there. The banter and laughter suggest there’s a serious bromance going on between these guys, and it shows.

Posted on by Allison in Concerts

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