Faith Restored: Chris Isaak in Minneapolis
Those of you who read my Eagles review last week were probably under the impression that the concert soured me a bit on classic acts and the lack of consideration some have for their audience. And that assumption would have been correct. However, a concert-going weekend in Minneapolis has unexpectedly been the perfect antidote to my wariness as of late regarding live shows and artist apathy.
The main goal of the Minneapolis trip was to photograph and review Peter Frampton’s Guitar Circus, and make no mistake: that show was incredible. (Click HERE for review.) But a chance look at the city’s online concert listings the day after Frampton’s performance led to an event that I will henceforth refer to as “the anti-Eagles experience.” Reviewing the listings for Monday, July 22, I saw mostly local acts. But one name was instantly recognizable amidst the obscure groups: Chris Isaak. If you aren’t familiar with Isaak, I won’t bore you with biographical details. Wikipedia is great for that. I want to get straight to the show.
I’d seen Isaak in concert once before. While I remember it being great, the specifics of the show had retreated to the recesses of my memory. I wanted to see him again, this time with a reviewer’s eye. I immediately contacted my OnStage colleague Larry Philpot, who acted magically-fast and secured my cousin Barry and me tickets and a photo pass within hours of expressing interest in reviewing the concert.
Around 7pm, after a hastily eaten dinner, we arrived at the Weesner Amphitheater. It is housed inside the Minnesota Zoo, and as you approach the gates you can hear assorted animals bellowing in the distance. At the ticket booth we were greeted by a nice lady who immediately presented us with our envelope of tickets upon giving her my name. It also contained a photo pass, which had “Memphis Photo Service” printed on it in a ‘50s-style font. I immediately picked up on the significance: Chris Isaak is a huge fan of old Memphis rock and roll, so this was a tasteful nod to his heroes. It put me at ease, especially after the Eagles “no pit photos” policy.
We made our way up to the amphitheater, which was surrounded by a natural rock formation with a lagoon behind the stage. It was a picturesque venue. It had rows of simple benches, with the assigned “seats” actually numbers spaced out across the front of each bench. We found our spot, and as I scanned the stage area a security guard saw my camera bag and waved for me to come down to him. I went down, and he said, “You’re the guy shooting tonight, I take it.” “Great,” I thought to myself. “I’m the only guy shooting.” Being a relative rookie photographer, this unnerved me quite a bit. I nodded yes. He said, “There is to be no shooting from the pit tonight, you understand? You can only shoot from the aisles, your seat, or from the back of the venue. And don’t shoot past the three-song limit.” Hiding my disappointment and all-too-familiar sense of paranoia stemming from the Eagles experience, I shook his hand cheerfully and said, “No problem, thanks!” I wasn’t pressing my luck.
Going back to my seat, I scanned the area for some good sight lines. The house photographer showed up at the front of the stage just before the show, and as he walked by our aisle I introduced myself to him. His name was George. Very friendly and approachable (what a relief), George gave me a few tips on the venue and then went to position himself as close to the stage as possible; I watched every move he made, trying to learn everything I could from his extensive experience with the unique amphitheater.
At around 7:45pm when the blue sky was still bright and the humidity still in the air, an affable local radio announcer came on stage to give away a few prizes and announce the imminent arrival of Chris Isaak and his band. A few minutes later, five sharply-dressed men in shiny suits and pointy boots shuffled confidently across stage and took their places. Right on their heels was the man of the hour in a black sequined suit that could have easily been stolen right from the wardrobe at Graceland. Isaak strapped on his white Gibson hollow body electric and motioned toward the band who fell in behind him for the first song, the title track from his 1998 album Speak of the Devil. Isaak and his group were all smiles, gesturing toward one another and joking around. When the first song ended, the crowd erupted as Isaak stood there with a good-natured brooding expression.
By the end of the first song I’d taken about a hundred shots, having crouched down at the bottom of the left aisle just below our seats. George the house photographer was ahead of me at the edge of the front row benches, and motioned for me to switch places with him. My heart went up in my chest as I nodded appreciation at his generosity and settled my lens on Isaak from about ten feet away as he went into the breezy, mid-tempo “Two Hearts.” After the next song I dutifully put away my camera as ordered and returned to my seat where cousin Barry had a cold beer waiting for me. As soon as I sat down and poked my camera bag under my legs, Isaak addressed the audience: “How are you all doing out there? Maybe I should come out for a better look.” The band kicked into “We’ve Got Tomorrow” from his album Mr. Lucky, and within seconds Isaak was in the crowd serenading a young girl, then a middle-aged couple, then an older lady as he made his way further and further into the bleachers. As people were freaking out and reaching for him, Isaak picked a spot in the crowd and simply sat down on the bench with everyone else to sing the rest of the song. The crowd was mesmerized and charmed off its collective feet.
And I had tears welling up in my eyes. At first I did not know why. But then it dawned on me: I was being injected with a much-needed antidote for the apathetic Eagles show I’d seen just over a week earlier in Grand Falls-Windsor. Here was a legend in his own right, putting himself right smack-dab in the crosshairs of his audience. Surprisingly, no one tugged at him or tried to make him linger as he made his way to the back of the amphitheater before running down over the stairs and back onto the stage. I guess when you don’t assume you’re above anyone else, you fit right in – no matter how big a star you are.
If this display of openness and respect for the audience wasn’t enough to fill me with an affirming sense of pride, Isaak took out a red electric guitar after the song ended and scanned the crowd. He saw a boy, and asked him: “Hey, young man…how old are you?” The boy answered, “twelve.” Isaak asked, “Do you play guitar?” The boy nodded yes. “Well here you go, buddy. Have this guitar.” The place went crazy as he handed the wide-eyed and ecstatic boy the guitar. “I just love giving away guitars,” Isaak said in a humorous tone. “Hershel [Yadovitz, his guitarist], come here….give me your guitar…” The place burst out laughing as Hershel jokingly guarded his precious Stratocaster. Not only is Isaak a great songwriter and performer, he’s hilarious. A true comedian. He was only four songs in at this point, and I already felt truly inspired.
Many in the crowd were taking photos and video with their handheld devices, as they did at the Eagles show in Grand Falls-Windsor. At one point a burly security guard made his way conspicuously through the crowd to stop a person from taking phone pictures. Isaak noticed this happening, and when the song finished he announced: “Folks, security is really trying to keep control on the photos being taken tonight.” I inwardly cringed as I thought Isaak was going to give the same speech Don Henley gave at the Salmon festival about how the band would stop playing if the audience kept taking pictures. Isaak continued: “Folks, I have to say….we didn’t dress up like this for nothing tonight, so please take as many photos of us as you’d like. It makes us feel special!” Once again the amphitheater erupted as the band kicked into the heartbreaking “One More Day.” This was truly a complete 180 from what I had seen the previous weekend.
Next, the familiar blues-based riff of “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” started as Isaak picked three women out of the audience to dance on stage with him. This sent everyone into a frenzy as bass player Roly Salley got two of the girls to do coordinated moves with him. I have never been to a show so audience-focused in my life. There was zero ego on this stage. It is as if Isaak makes it his sole purpose to instill the audience with such a sense of relaxation that he has each and every one of them in the palm of his hand. Brilliant.
For the next song, Isaak invited keyboard player Scott Plunkett to the front of the stage where an upright piano was set up. There was a bottle of scotch inside the piano, which Plunkett used as a prop to carry on Isaak’s ongoing joke that the keyboard player was drunk. The band launched into a set of oldies from Isaak’s latest album Beyond the Sun, a tribute to the Memphis legends. The set included songs from Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis (complete with a smoke machine planted in the piano for “Great Balls of Fire”). He took a minute to say that as a child he never imagined he’d be on stage doing what he does, and that he owes everything to his heroes for giving him the inspiration to become a musician. This kind of gratitude is not often heard out of megastars these days; most of them are mainly focused on the amount of tickets or merchandise sold as they go through the motions for their strict “75 minutes-plus-encore” routine. Not Isaak; not even a hint of autopilot anywhere throughout the two-hour show.
Ending the show after this set of classics, Isaak and band returned for a two-song encore of “Blue Hotel” and “Western Stars.” By now it was dark, and big moths were visible in the spotlight. Isaak stopped about 30 seconds into the song and said, “If I suck one of these things in, I’m stopping!” The audience broke out in laughter and settled back to savour the last few minutes of the show. Isaak again profusely thanked everyone as he and the band made their way backstage, cheerfully waving goodbye as they went.
Walking out through the zoo into the parking lot to wait for a cab, Barry and I kept saying over and over to each other, “Man, that guy really knows how to treat an audience.” It seems very straightforward and normal to see gratitude in action during a show, as we did that night. The Eagles could surely use some instruction from Chris Isaak in this regard. I’m not saying that they could ever be as gregarious and charming as Isaak; few could ever achieve that remarkable feat. But they could at least glean some redeeming traits such as reasonable accessibility, appreciation for audiences who provide them with their living, and a live show that makes people feel like the most important audience for which the band has ever performed.
The most predominant feeling I had back at the hotel as I lay on the bed processing the show was that of relief. It turns out I’m not, after all, a bitter fault-finder who got jilted after seeing a meet-and-greet go bad. An analogy can be drawn here between a bad show and a bad relationship. Sometimes you don’t know how bad it is until you experience something really good. Thank you, Chris Isaak, for assuring me that all is well in the normal world of concerts, and that what I experienced at the Eagles show was an unfortunate aberration orchestrated by musicians who have no idea how easy it is to win over an audience of thousands with just a few kind gestures. The next hope I have now, however distant, is that the thousands who overspend to see the elitist Eagles would instead gamble a modest $50-dollar bill on a show that they’ll never forget.
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