Chris Isaak at a Crossroads

Chris Isaak has accomplished quite a bit since his debut album in 1985. He has released 15 albums, including the requisite live, best of and Christmas albums. His latest release is a tribute album, paying homage to his heroes from Sun Studios, with special emphasis on his hero Roy Orbison.

He has played various fund raising gigs, and participated in an excellent Buddy Holly tribute concert organized by Peter Asher. He will be returning to San Diego’s Belly Up for another holiday show in late November.

isaak 4Isaak has had two TV shows, both criminally underrated. He has been shot by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, and he has had a video directed by the estimable Herb Ritts. His songs have been picked up by venerable directors like David Lynch, Tony Scott and Stanley Kubrick. Isaak had a budding film career, successfully and improbably playing serious characters far different from his stage persona. He tours to packed houses almost year round, and no doubt brings his surfboard when he is anywhere near the coast.

His concerts are consistently satisfying, with a crack band and between song repartee without peer. At his annual appearance at Humphreys By The Bay last week, he paid homage to the folks tethered on boats and had folks practically rolling in the aisles with his self-deprecating banter. It was only about six songs into his setlist that he had folks standing and filling the pit area in front of the stage.

isaak sfAt Humphrey’s the setting gave the band room to roam, guitarist Hershel Yatovitz weaved throughout the audience, peeling licks with aplomb. Bassist Rowland Salley was a consistent foil for Isaak, sidling up for some harmonizing on “San Francisco Days.”

Although I have never seen him repeat a joke, Isaak still likes picking out a few lasses from the crowd to twist and grind onstage. He gleefully makes fun of his band members, who strut in style.

But what will be Isaak’s next move? His beloved drummer Kenney Dale Johnson is undergoping cancer treatment and missing his first tour since joining Isaak decades ago. Isaak’s band is essentially intact since its inception.

Has Isaak been filling his notebook with new songs? Certainly his fetching sketches look good on the tour merch and the last few liner notes, but any writer’s block will be problematic for Isaak. He has a very solid song canon, sufficient to tour behind for years. But at 57 he seems too young to let his songwriting skills lie dormant. He is painfully aware that without compelling new material he risks becoming a touring veteran, unable to break out of what is admittedly a successful routine.

Chris Isaak is slampy

Chris Isaak is slampy

His onstage covers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Orbison are qualified and heartfelt, but at some point in the recent Humphrey’s concert I felt like I was watching a cover band. Isaak is supremely qualified to cover these icons, perhaps more qualified than most. But for decades he was the perfect balance of a freshness and retro. I am hopeful he can regain that equilibrium.


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.