I didn’t have any any idea of the Easter egg that Chris Isaak was going to include in his recent 90-minute set at the Wolf Trap, when he and Lyle Lovett appeared as co-headliners.
Playing bass for Chris was Rowland Salley, who wrote “Killing The Blues,” a song that has been covered by John Prine and Allison Krauss and Robert Plant, to name just a few. The audience got to watch Salley perform his song, after which Chris said some lovely words about seeing a song performed by the writer.
Lovett and Isaak share a distinctive sense of humor and a reverence for musical traditions. They take the songs seriously, but not themselves. These two incredible musicians were full of both humorous asides and musical brilliance at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap on Aug. 6.
Isaak joked that his distinctive stage attire creates the impression that one is going to see “either a figure skater or semi-professional entertainment,” promising not to “go below state fair levels.” He also compared his complexion to “a young kd lang,” which is hilarious. Lovett similarly took a shot at his own appearance, saying, “I look better in a mask.”
Perhaps the funniest line of the night came when Isaak claimed to be a history buff and to have read about this area’s history: “When the Vikings came here in their longboats, they brought the accordion with them.” He also poked fun at his heartthrob status, joking, “I’m a professional, it’s okay to remove your clothing.”
It’s funny stuff, but the music is deep and true. Isaak and Love emerged at the same time — 1985 and 1986, respectively, with their debut albums. Isaak is a classic rock crooner in the tradition of Roy Orbison (who he once opened for, and whose “Only The Lonely” he covered) and Elvis Presley (who got his due with “Can’t Help Falling In Love”), but there are hints of country — a sprinkling of Johnny Cash — in there, too. That last bit was clear when Isaak and his band played “Ring Of Fire.”
If Isaak is traditional rock with a bit of country, the reverse might be said of Lovett, who has embraced large band orchestrations that allow him to channel Western swing into what’s almost pop. The overlap in their oeuvres when they covered “Sweet Dreams,” a hit for Orbison, together during Lovett’s set. They also showed their shared interest in classic pop with Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up And Fly Right.”
Isaak took the stage first. In a bit of a get-up, both of them came out with a uniformed referee for a coin flip to determine the evening’s order. Chris opened his set with “American Boy,” followed by “Somebody’s Crying,” “Live It up,” and “Big Wide Wonderful World.” “Wicked Game,” which is as famous for its smoldering music video as for the song itself, came next.
Watch the official music video for “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak on YouTube:
After “Go Walking Down There” and “I Want Your Love” was one of the more interesting moments in Chris’s set. When he introduced “Ring of Fire,” he emulated an old-time revival preacher, urging everyone to raise their hands and ask for forgiveness. Chris walks the line between sincerity and irony, but this strikes me as being more sincere. Chris has fun with his audience, but he doesn’t make fun of them. He’s not playing games with them.
After “Ring of Fire,” the stage crew brought out some stools, and the band switched to acoustic instruments, playing “Forever Blue. “Two Hearts,” and “Livin’ For Your Lover.” When he introduced “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” he encouraged those who had come to show by themselves to “think about why you’re here by yourself.” The rest of the set included “Dancin'”. “Blue Hotel,” and “San Francisco Days” and finished up with “Notice The Ring.” A cover of Louis Jordan’s “Caledonia Boogie” was performed as “Wolf Trap Boogie.”
There was plenty of time left in what was to be a 90-minute set, and Chris did a substantial encore. “Wicked Game” gained wide exposure when it was used on the soundtrack of director Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which starred the then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. “Can’t Do A Thing (To Stop Me)” followed, then a James Brown cover, “I’ll Go Crazy.” Isaak and his band finished their performance with “The Way Things Really Are.” Explaining the song, Chris said that when you break up with someone, you start “seeing things…bit of flotsam and jetsam” from them.
After a 30-minute intermission, Lovett and his Large Band took the stage, beginning with “Are We Dancing.” Lyle exited the stage briefly while the band played a cover of The Horace Silver Quintet’s instrumental “Cookin’ at the Continental.” Back on stage, Lyle sang “Pants Is Overrated,” which is about what you’d probably expect it to be about it. He did another of his songs, “Here I Am,” before bringing Chris back to the stage.
Watch the official music video for “Here I Am” by Lyle Lovett on YouTube:
After they did the covers I mentioned earlier, they did an original bit which, I am guessing, is called “We Gave Each Other Covid” that had the audience in stitches. In the back half of his set, Lyle got into some of the new material from his most recent LP, The Twelfth of June. The title track is influenced by his family’s history of immigrating to Texas, and the few weeks he spent every summer at the family cemetery in the Great Pine Forest. “Pig Meat Man” came about because his son is a vegetarian, except for bacon.
The rest of the set consisted of tunes from Lovett’s back catalogue: the gospel-influenced “I Will Rise Up,” early hit “If I Had A Boat,” and “I’ve Been to Memphis.” The show ended with his classic kiss-off “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).”
As Lovett told the audience, “The greatest privilege in the world is to work with talented people.” His band were all excellent, and there were a few legendary sidemen among them. Bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkle are longtime LA session players and sidemen who have been active since the ’60s and have worked with too many legendary names to list. As a music geek, seeing these guys and Rowland Salley were some top-shelf Easter eggs. They were the cherry on top of great showings from Isaak and Lovett.
Here are some photos of Chris Isaak performing at Wolf Trap on Aug. 6, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Marc Shea.
Here are some photos of Lyle Lovett performing at Wolf Trap on Aug. 6, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Marc Shea.