"Don't lead me on," said Chris Isaak to his enraptured audience early into last night's mammoth 2¼-hour, 34-song performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
The veteran California song stylist and retro pop ambassador was only half joking. He was trying to get a feel for whether or not the crowd was going to stick by him if he took the show down some lengthy rock 'n' roll sideroads that would often stray far from his familiar hits.
To get a reply, he bolted from the stage and roamed into the crowd, serenading everyone he passed with Love Me Tender. After finding an empty seat to park in — and an especially eager female fan to sit on his lap — the singer switched to a more seasonal Elvis Presley gem, Blue Christmas, before bounding back to the stage.
In fit and youthful voice and possessing a performance energy that defied his 54 years, Isaak blended the pop lessons of pioneers such as Presley, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. But he also added noir-like pop atmospherics that neatly complimented the almost playfully forlorn storylines ripe in a repertoire that pulled tunes from every one of his 12 albums.
Sometimes the results were exercises in glorious sustain and cool, as in the sleek band groove that wrapped around Dancin' and the lean rockabilly drive that ignited the show opening Lonely with a Broken Heart. Other roots-savvy exercises merrily boiled over into seriously electric rock, pop and soul — including the title track to Isaak's 1998 album Speak of the Devil (long one of the singer's most underappreciated tunes) and the dirty, dirty, dirty Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing with its mean, Slim Harpo-fortified boogie accent.
But it was a 45 minute encore session, complete with Isaak donning his famed "suit of mirrors," that threw the performance into overdrive. A few Isaak originals (Blue Hotel and the comparatively sunny San Francisco Days) got the segment rolling. Then Isaak offered a hit parade of vintage cover tunes being considered for an upcoming album.
Having already taken stabs at music by the Louvin Brothers, Presley and James Brown earlier in the evening, Isaak used the encore to indulge in nearly a dozen consecutive covers by Perkins (Dixie Fried), Ray Price (the crisp country crooner Crazy Arms) and Sun Records-era Elvis (I Forgot to Remember to Forget).
The segment's general spontaneity (Isaak kept making rolling motions with his hands as a signal for his band to line up one cover classic after another) seemed to befuddle a few audience patrons who were hoping for a little more of Isaak's own fine material. And, indeed, classic originals such as You Owe Me Some Kind of Love, Heart Shaped World and Western Stars were omitted.
But hearing a roots-music scholar rock out with a gallery of pioneering tunes that he performed faithfully and with authoritative vigor was the sort of holiday gift even Santa would have been envious of.