Chris Isaak’s crowd-pleasing crooning at the Hammersmith Apollo
It is fitting that Chris Isaak’s support act was a simple singer-songwriter armed with just a guitar and a great voice. Talented Welshman Paul Freeman gently warmed the audience as they filtered into the cavernous Apollo space with easy, humble charm and a strong, musical set of country rock ballads. The simplicity of this opening paved the way for Isaac’s big entrance to appear even bigger. He bounded on stage to rapturous applause – this audience loved him and were ready to be swept off their feet.
Chris Isaak’s passion is the music of the pioneers of rock and roll, those 50s giants led by the inspired producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records – we’re talking Elvis, Orbison, Lewis, Perkins and Cash, and Chris captures the spirit of the era with authenticity and a genuine love for the music, through covering the classics and creating his own. He is touring his latest album Beyond the Sun, which is his highest charting album in the UK since Wicked Game in 1991, debuting at number 6, and which he partly recorded at Sun Studios.
He and his band are having a ball up on stage. They have been playing together for 27 years, and their show is polished to perfection, with a nice element of banter between old friends, a bit of tomfoolery, some practised patter and good-natured teasing adding to the spot-on delivery of the music. Chris himself, oozing charisma, dazzled in a bright red sequinned suit and had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand from the word go. He certainly knows how to work the crowd, incorrigibly mingling in their midst on a roving mike, much to the delight of some rather over-excited ladies.
Chris performed a well-plotted set that rouses and settles in good measure and at just the right points. The tight band are all obviously talented musicians, lending great backing vocals to Chris’s own strong voice – he has mastered the yowling, yearning rockabilly genre with superb control and a tone worthy of any of the 50s greats. There was plenty of synchronised guitar swinging and grape-vining country footwork adding to the showmanship, and some neat stage tricks that we won’t spoil.
Musical highlights included his own tracks – inevitably the 1989 hit Wicked Game with its soulful, plaintive vocals and those famous atmospheric guitar riffs; and the bluesy, bass-driven Baby Did a Bad Thing from 1995 was also enjoyable. A suitably gushing and romantic version of Elvis’s Can’t Help Falling in Love segued neatly into Now or Never, featuring some nicely arranged backing vocal harmonies by bass player Rowland Salley, and Isaac nailed Great Balls of Fire without leaning into parody, often the danger with these famous, showy songs.
It’s questionable whether the venue was right to have this concert seated – it was a brave Apollo usher who tried to curtail the aisle dancing during Ring of Fire. Did Isaak bring anything new to the great hits of his heroes or the genre? Not really. Did he do them justice and give the audience what they came for? In spades. If you love this kind of music this is as close as you’ll get to the flavours of 50s Memphis by a seasoned entertainer who loves it too.
For further information on the support act, Paul Freeman, visit his official website.
Listen to Wicked Game here: