CHRIS ISAAK, REVIEWED (2024): Turning the starlight on

 |   |  5 min read

CHRIS ISAAK, REVIEWED (2024): Turning the starlight on

In the years before Covid we would sometimes go to the opera. Just one a year and when my rock'n'roll friends asked me why I'd glibly say, “it's important to know what your enemy is up to”.

I was joking of course and went to the opera out of curiosity.

Let it be said I know very little – extremely little – about opera. But in advance of the performance would read something of the story and the staging.

A couple of times I interviewed directors or production designers and got behind their thinking of how they could recast something from the 19th century into the present day, like Rigoletto set in Berlusconi's bunga-bunga Italy.

But there's a great advantage in going to see a performance or artist about which you know very little.

Most often we go to see those we like and are familiar with, hence the enduring success and popularity of tribute bands and concerts.

But inevitably if we are seeing the original artist, we make comparisons with any previous performance or what they sound like on record (the Eagles apparently replicated their recordings, Bob Dylan not even close or trying to be).

So there's more of challenge to preconceptions in seeing someone you don't know that well, if at all.

When we were offered tickets to Chris Isaak I jumped at the chance because I am not that familiar with his work.

Certainly I reviewed some of this albums but that was years ago and much of them has been erased or has faded. I'd never seen him live and only know a couple of hits (the inescapable and terrific Wicked Game and moody Blue Hotel). Mostly what I remember of him is his very funny and knowing television show (which I mention here).

Screenshot_2024_04_25_at_10.38.39_AMI see there that I interviewed him – I'd forgotten that – and was impressed by his self-awareness and humour.

So we went to Chris Isaak with about as little prior knowledge as we took to Wagner's Flying Dutchman.

And that absence of expectation meant just about everything he did came as a surprise, a bonus and was enormously enjoyable.

Isaak knows his audience and cleverly plays off their expectations. He knows this is a night out when babysitters had to be engaged, that certain songs evoke personal memories and that people want more than a guy singing songs. They want to be entertained.

And that is what he delivers, a night of entertainment.

About four songs in he left the stage and sang from the audience as he walked around, sat on women's laps, singled people out for attention . . . and carried on singing beautifully.

Screenshot_2024_04_25_at_10.39.06_AMHe even made his way up to the mezzanine where we were and then at the end of the song thanked everyone and said he hoped we'd get home safe.

Isaak has his comedic timing down pat and to repeat his quick humour would be to spoil the surprise. He has a great act.

And that is what he is, he's an actor and singer in a spangle suit (which he made fun of) who looked a bit like Tom Hanks playing a slim Elvis.

Isaak may sing songs of loneliness and heartbreak (Roy Orbison's Only the Lonely and Pretty Woman were in the set) but he's not milking the songs for personal angst or – in the manner of wounded young pop artists – expecting us to believe that it's his life he's singing out.

Screenshot_2024_04_25_at_10.37.44_AMHe's just the performer of such songs.

When the performance is over the show carries on with wit, well practiced asides and jokes with his long-standing band.

And what a band. Isaak helms one of the best Southern rock'n'roll bands around who can slide into moody pop, danceable Fifties rock'n'roll and much more, and with dance steps like the Shadows who hadn't quite got the moves right.

When Buddy Holly died he was moving into new areas of expression beyond rockabilly and rock'n'roll. He was extending himself into ballads, orchestration and mood pieces. Had he lived another five years he might have ended up where Isaak came in.

There is much of the West Texas sound (Buddy and Roy from that region) in Isaak's DNA and it is instantly appealing.

For those like me who don't know his considerable catalogue, the songs sounded instantly familiar and – this is the best part – identifiably Chris Isaak songs.

At the end he had dancers up from the crowd with him on stage. It was that kind of performance.

isaakAnd you gotta love a white guy in mirror pants who tells a very funny story about meeting James Brown and then performs I'll Go Crazy.

That takes courage . . . but of course Chris Isaak is a performer.

And one of the best.

As an aside here, in recent months I've noticed a pattern among reviewers who faithfully report just how much the star said they loved us or New Zealand as if that isn't a showbiz veneer.

Isaak did none of that with any seriousness. When he said nice things it was knowing that the audience knew that this was part of the act, the faux sincerity milked for humour. And we were all in on the joke.

This was an excellent night of escapist pleasure where no one was talked down to and 67-year old Isaak gave an energetic two hour performance peppered with quick sly wit and genuine bellylaughs.

I must look out that television show again.

Incidentally, the opener was Mel Parsons in a solo performance and she had the unenviable role of coming on as people drifted in chatted and, if those around me were any measure, preferred to scroll their Facebook pages.

But through sheer personality, humorous patter and powerful songs she won them over, especially after the lights went down.

She performed old and forthcoming songs, plugged her Q Theatre show with her band on June 15, and joked about her kids.

Against the odds it was a fine if short set and by the final songs she was being listened to and appreciated in attentive silence.

The problem she had at the start in getting attention was because she came on unannounced. That is ridiculous and insulting to the artist.

Decades ago I mentioned this and will do so again: why doesn't the promoter or venue have someone come on and welcome the audience, get the lights dimmed and introduce the opening act: “Our own . . . Mel Parsons”.

It is a simple matter but is professional, creates a sense of occasion and signals that the concert has started . . . so get off Facebook, stop chatting.

It wouldn't be hard these days to get someone to act as the MC for $50.

There are going to plenty of underemployed former television stars who'd be glad of the work.


Chris Isaak, Mel Parsons. Aotea Centre, April 24 2024


Elsewhere tries to take a different approach to reviewing live concerts, often looking at the bigger picture or wider context rather just a setlist recount of the show.

You can find those in other forums.

Share It

Your Comments

Pat Smith - Apr 25, 2024

Good read Graham, gave me good feel for someone who, like you, i lnow more by name than catalogue. And made me want to see him live.

post a comment

More from this section   Live reviews + concert photos articles index

TEEKS, REVIEWED (2021): Soul to soul, heart to heart

TEEKS, REVIEWED (2021): Soul to soul, heart to heart

Sometimes when we're on a long journey we can be so distracted by what's around us that we forget to look back and see how far we've come. So it might be said of this sold-out concert by Teeks... > Read more

NILE RODGERS AND CHIC, REVIEWED (2023): Everybody in the house say yo

NILE RODGERS AND CHIC, REVIEWED (2023): Everybody in the house say yo

About 15 years ago I took one of my sons – a Beatle fan in his 30s – to a touring tribute shows, either the Let It Be show or that by the excellent Bootleg Beatles. Either way, they... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

LIFE UNDER CANVAS: Squatting in our own home

LIFE UNDER CANVAS: Squatting in our own home

Just before Christmas 2005, we fell victim to the pandemic sweeping across Auckland. You know how it is: you always think it’ll affect someone else and you’ll be okay. So we were... > Read more



In a country where pop music is often slightly bent and off on a tangent, and "alternative" act are frequently in the mainstream of public attention, New Zealand's Vorn still manages to... > Read more