Chris Isaak and his long-time band Silvertone thoroughly charmed the Capitol Theater audience at Overture Center on Tuesday night with a concert offering the expected hits and some surprises.
During a bit of introductory conversation after the first few songs, Isaak inquired how many audience members had seen the band play live before; quite a few had, but there were also many first-timers. “People who’ve seen us before are open to the idea we might improve,” Isaak remarked dryly. Continuing the thought a few jokes later, he made a bold statement: “I make a promise that at no point tonight will we drop below state fair level.”
That sort of self-deprecating humor was probably expected by the repeat concertgoers, and longtime fans who remember The Chris Isaak Show, the much-missed (and still MIA on home video or streaming services) sitcom-rockumentary starring Isaak and most of his bandmates, which aired on Showtime a couple decades back. Considering that so many of Isaak’s songs deal with themes of love and heartbreak, the comedy may have been more surprising to some of the first-timers. After the show, my companion for the concert said, “That was excellent, but I wasn’t expecting the ’70s variety show sort of presentation.” Along with Isaak’s goofy jokes and spot-on comic timing, the band occasionally showed off engagingly loose but well-plotted choreography and even some dance moves.
(A likely only-in-Madison joke involved Isaak’s research of the city’s history, including its discovery by the Vikings who brought with them a primitive ThighMaster and an accordion. You had to be there for that one.)
The occasional silliness and old-school showbiz leanings amplify the fact this is one heck of a working band. Isaak’s 1985 debut album was named after his live band, already in place before the record deal with the core of today’s band — bassist Rowland Salley and drummer/primary harmony vocalist Kenney Dale Johnson. Lead guitarist Hershel Yatovitz has been on board since 1995’s platinum-selling Forever Blue; Scotty Plunkett on keys/accordion and Rafael Padilla on percussion/congas have also been with the band for many years. That stability has created an ensemble flexible enough to let the music take them where it will, and to flow around the stray comic aside or musical left turn.
Most distinctive, though, remains Isaak’s voice. Hey folks, what’s on the records is what you get in concert. Edging toward four decades on the national music scene, Isaak still glides into that falsetto with seemingly little effort, an ability reminiscent of Roy Orbison for vocal power and range but with more of a rock/soul edge than the operatic Orbison. (Though Isaak can’t help poking fun at his singing a bit, either, remarking after holding a note for about 30 seconds on “ Dancin’,” “I didn’t tear anything but I stretched it.”)
The set, about an hour and 45 minutes, kicked off with “American Boy” (the theme from the TV show) and “Somebody’s Crying.” Isaak and company surprised the audience by slipping into “Wicked Game” fairly early on, before moving into an extended semi-acoustic set with everyone at the front of the stage, including Johnson keeping time with just one tom and brushes. Along with the hits, the set list dropped in album cuts from throughout Isaak’s discography, right up to his most recent, First Comes The Night, from 2016.
Through the evening everyone got a chance at the spotlight, with the most prominent spots reserved for Salley — singing his oft-covered song “Killing the Blues,” which he originally performed as part of a Woodstock Mountains Revue album in 1977 — and Johnson, who came out front for a vocal duet with Isaak to close the show with the countrified “The Way Things Really Are.”
Are the showbiz aspects likely repeated from night to night? Well, probably; judging by what’s been shared on setlist.fm the songs played each night have been relatively constant on this tour. But it’s honestly refreshing these days to see a band not afraid to entertain and mug a bit along with playing their music. This reviewer wouldn’t hesitate to go see Isaak and company play any time they’re in town.