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Robert Hilburn : Im-posing Debut By Chris Isaak

June 15, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

It's not hard to identify rock newcomer Chris Isaak's main influence. Just look at the cover of Isaak's debut album. The Stockton native duplicates the pouty, sensual pose of one of Elvis Presley's most famous '50s photographs--the one that's also on the cover of Dave Marsh's 1982 biography of the late rock star.

On stage at the Anticlub this week, Isaak took the Elvis association a step further by sporting a Presley-esque pompadour and a baggy suit a la Elvis' early TV and concert performances.

Even Isaak's guitarist, Jimmy Calvin Wilsey, had much of the same clean-shaven, aw-shucks aura of Presley's original guitarist, Scotty Moore.

But, no: Isaak's repertoire the two nights I saw him this week didn't include any Presley tunes. Isaak did, however, augment his own songs with other pre-Beatles selections, including Marty Robbins' "Devil Woman," Bo Diddley's "Diddley Daddy" and Carl Perkins' "Dixie Fried." He could just as easily have substituted songs by Johnny Burnette and Roy Orbison.

Isaak's music isn't exactly rockabilly or country-rock, and it's certainly not straight out of an oldies revue. But he weaves traces of each of these classic elements into his own frequently haunting songs to evoke the emotional longing and purity of '50s rock.

Though the presence of these familiar musical elements makes some of Isaak's songs appear slight on first listening, especially on record, there is a steady, understated insistence and tension to his music live that makes the tales of loneliness and desire remarkably seductive.

One interesting thing about seeing the 28-year-old singer and writer at the Anticlub (where he'll be appearing every Monday through Wednesday through July 3) is that he still seems to be piecing his musical vision together, a process that gave this week's shows the appearance of open rehearsals.

Seeing him in this small room gives the feeling of discovery. Though the scruffy, bare-bones Anticlub is an in-crowd spot on the local scene, it's rare to see any act from a major label there--especially an act in virtual residency.

Isaak is doing these shows for two reasons: His band has only been together a few weeks and it needs to work, and he hopes the media attention and word-of-mouth will give him exposure that has been slow to come on radio so far. He had great success doing a monthlong series of shows at a bar in San Francisco and will soon move on to New York and do several shows in a club there.

Isaak really hasn't defined his position on stage yet--but that's not necessarily a weakness. It just makes audiences work harder to resolve the contradiction between his dated "image" and his sly, contemporary stance. If his music still seems to be evolving, Isaak himself has a confident, independent attitude.

"I know some people are going to find what we do kinda strange," Isaak said before Wednesday's show. "I also know it's dangerous to invite people to make any comparison between myself and Elvis (on the album cover) because I know who is going to come off second best. But the right people will get the message--and that's all I care about." Besides the Anticlub shows, he'll be at the Lhasa Club next Saturday.

CABLE SPECIALS: "Private Dancer," the Tina Turner special on HBO this month (next airing on Wednesday), is an above-average concert presentation thanks to Turner's showmanship and a guest appearance by David Bowie, but its impact is still limited by the nature of the beast. These concerts rarely come close to the emotional intensity of the live performance and this one--despite an army of cameramen--suffers from that same limitation.

Rock specials are usually much more effective if they give you something more informal. Case in point: "John Fogerty's All Stars," which is being shown this month on Showtime (next airing on Tuesday). It blends a personal home-movie feel (Fogerty taking in a baseball game with fellow rocker George Thorogood and making music at a Louisiana picnic) with footage from Fogerty's only live performance since his Creedence days more than a decade ago.

The term concert in this case needs an asterisk. Fogerty performed some of his favorite (and mostly obscure) blues and gospel tunes before a small crowd on a Hollywood sound stage, working with an all-star band that included two members of Booker T. & the MGs. There's a gentle, relaxed feeling to the performance, and his vocals remind you that Fogerty isn't just one of rock's all-time greatest writers, but also one of its most memorable singers. The only problem with the show is that Fogerty had throat problems the night of the taping, so he went into the studio and redid some of the vocals, leaving us with a largely lip-synced video. Fogerty enjoyed doing these songs so much that he plans to release a special album of them this summer.

LIVE ACTION: Tickets for Wham!'s Hollywood Park concert on Aug. 30 will go on sale Monday. . . . Tickets also go on sale that day for three Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre concerts: America (July 12), Dan Fogelberg (July 14) and John Denver (July 18). . . . Tickets go on sale Sunday for two other Irvine shows: R.E.M. (July 28) and Hank Williams, Jr. (Aug. 30). . . . Luther Vandross has added an extra night (July 7) to his Universal Amphitheatre engagement, while Amy Grant has also extended her Greek Theatre appearance to include a July 10 show. . . . Tears for Fears will be at the Santa Barbara County Bowl on July 4 as part of the group's busy Southern California swing. . . . Ashford & Simpson headline the Wiltern Theatre on Aug. 8 and 9. . . . Donovan will be at the Beverly Theatre on July 13.

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