"A man has to dream--I think Frank Sinatra said that, or it's in the Bible," Chris Isaak mused mid-set Saturday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, and while he may have had trouble pinning down that maxim's source, his set showed that he has certainly taken it to heart. Like few other American performers of this decade, he has forged his own unique musical vision, one--like his distant mentor Roy Orbison--that is powerfully based on mood and reflection.
Isaak's three albums (including the new "Heart Shaped World") can recall Orbison or Del Shannon's work in the obsessive, evocative moods conjured by the songs. It can recall John Fogerty in the way Isaak transmutes basic, simple rock into a vital, distinctive world onto itself. But, chiefly the albums establish Isaak as one who has created his own dream and brought it into the waking world.
One of the absurdist between-song monologues the 32-year-old singer offered Saturday told how he had gone directly from being a kid with a dream, a mirror and a Hasbro guitar to the club that night, announcing himself: "I've got the suit, I've got the guitar. I'll get the talent later."
While years of hard work clearly went into his 16-song set, Isaak also obviously was not too removed from that kid's dream, living it out to the fullest on stage.
Led by James Calvin Wilsey's atmospheric, echoing spy-movie guitar, and nailed home by the remarkably right drummer Kenney Dale Johnson and bassist Rowland Salley, Isaak's band both rains and thunders through his overcast overtures.
Isaak missed none of the polished nuance of his recordings but added a plaintive immediacy to moody masterpieces "Wicked Game" and "Heart Shaped World" and the obsessive "Wrong to Love You," while pumping yodels into the rampaging "Wild Love" that could give Tarzan a run for his monkeys.
Isaak struck a strange balance on stage, his sad, yearning songs contrasting with his humorous tales, riotous numbers such as the frenzied, strobe-lit "In the Heat of the Jungle" and a surfed-up medley of Link Wray's "Jack the Ripper," "Rumble" and "Tequila." At the same time, colorful plastic tiki lights swayed over the audience, Isaak's impossible-to-ignore model's looks were accented by a shiny suit with so many tie clips that it looked like he had chrome lapels. But Isaak knows what he's doing: he could have sported the clown suit he wore in "Married to the Mob" without defusing the emotional impact of his songs.
For all the power his music has, though, Isaak's set still left the nagging impression that if he were to push just a little harder--taking more chances with his voice, music and the emotional rawness behind them--he could become one of the most affecting, inspiring performers extant.