Isaak's retro-rock good time tickles sold-out audience


July 27, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

As Chris Isaak pulled his '64 Chevy Nova up to the House of Blues for a sold-out show on Sunday -- the first of a three-night stand in what's becoming an annual event -- the long-running retro-rock heartthrob had no new product to sell.

The San Francisco singer and songwriter hasn't released a new album since "Always Got Tonight" in 2002. His self-titled cable "surreality show" has ended after three dry and witty seasons. And while there's a new disc in the can, it's a holiday record, and despite a short but cool snippet of "Blue Christmas," it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for that in July.

This, then, was simply Isaak returning to what he does best: melting hearts in live performance with his time-capsule brand of twangy, reverb-drenched late '50s/early '60s rock 'n' roll, cracking wise and gleefully goofing with his accomplished band, much to the delight of his reverent fans--many of them, it must be noted, adoring women displaying the sort of fixated gazes generally not seen outside of the Admiral Theatre.




When: 9 tonight

Where: House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $55
Call: (312) 923-2000


Resplendent in a hot pink suit adorned with yellow flames, Isaak led his five backing musicians through a career-spanning set that included all of the predictable gems -- "Wicked Game" may have been ruined by overexposure on VH1, but it's hard to get enough of "Heart Shaped World," "Speak of the Devil" or "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing" -- as well as treats like a heartfelt cover of Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely."

Isaak traded places with his powerful but sensitive drummer Kenny Dale Johnson to bash through a spirited version of "California Sun," brought out the stools for an acoustic mini-set a la "The Baja Sessions" (a welcome gift, though the usually good-humored star seemed peeved when some of his alleged fans in the VIP boxes chattered through it) and joked and flirted with that trademark charm, deadpan humor and million-watt smirk.

"How many of you are alone and desperate and drinking?" he asked. "You're my favorite kind of fan; the rest of you don't even bother talking to me after the show!"

Judging by the enthusiastic response from the female portion of the crowd, statements about Isaak's failings as a boyfriend -- such as those by comedian Margaret Cho, one of several celebrated exes -- haven't done much to dissuade his arduous suitors. It wasn't long after that when the first piece of underwear landed onstage.

Opening for Isaak was the New York singer-songwriter Sophie B. Hawkins, who released her fourth album, "Wilderness," last spring.

Though she has scored impressive hits with "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" and "As I Lay Me Down" -- both of which featured in a short but sweet seven-song set -- Hawkins remains underappreciated for the sophistication of her blues-tinged songwriting, the robust soulfulness of her vocals and the sheer exuberance of her performances.

Backed by a keyboardist and a drummer, the set included a rollicking stint with Hawkins on djembe -- she started her career as a percussionist for Bryan Ferry -- and built to a climax with her stripping to her tank-top and using her blue-jean shirt as a veil during a sexy mock-striptease.

Some tickets remain for Isaak's final show tonight at the House of Blues. Hawkins returns to the Chicago area with the Coors at 8 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Ravinia Festival, 400 Iris Lane in Highland Park, for $40 pavilion and $15 lawn. Call (847) 266-5100.