- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

Chris Isaak knows people don’t buy his records to catch up on his love life, even in these celebrity-obsessed times.

“[They listen] to hear about themselves,” Mr. Isaak says. “You listen to Hank Williams, you don’t think ‘someone’s cheating on Hank’ — if you’re human.”

The singer-songwriter may be partly right about his fans’ motivations, but surely a woman or two has closed her eyes and wished the handsome crooner were pining for her.

Plenty did just that Wednesday at Mr. Isaak’s concert at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, during which a gaggle of young women took to the stage to dance with the 47-year-old rockabilly singer.

Ever the showman, Mr. Isaak emerged first in a pumpkin-colored sequin suit only to swap out later for an ensemble starred with tiny mirrors.

In Mr. Isaak’s mind, if fans make the effort to see him in concert, he should oblige them with some sartorial sizzle.

“They don’t want to see you in a T-shirt,” he says during a phone interview conducted days before the show. “I like the idea that you show them a commitment … you’re gonna put on a show, and it’s something special.”

Mr. Isaak’s old-school good looks — his mashed nose a remnant of his pugilist past — have made him a thinking woman’s sex symbol, but his act, apparently, isn’t for the masses.

“Wicked Game,” Mr. Isaak’s 1989 hit from the David Lynch movie “Wild at Heart,” broke him into the pop mainstream with its dreamy vocals and steamy video with model Helena Christensen. His reluctance to play by pop-star rules kept his stay near the top brief.

Maybe his inner surfer prevented him from sustaining that level of fame. The Californian’s brand of retro rock reflects an utter disregard for contemporary tastes.

A music executive might advise Mr. Isaak to get with the times — or at least pair up with P. Diddy.

Don’t hold your breath.

“I never listen to advice,” Mr. Isaak says. “My attitude is, you’d love to give me advice, but it’s my picture on the record.”

Wednesday’s song list confirmed his independent-mindedness, as he blended weepy ballads such as his own “Forever Blue” with an inspired cover of Roy Orbison’s range-stretching “Only the Lonely.” On the latter, he induced chills when he unleashed his fabled falsetto, his calling card since his 1985 debut.

He could have wowed the crowd all night long with such covers, but the confessional sting of his own songwriting is part of his appeal.

Singing about his innermost feelings “wasn’t something I ever had any qualms about,” he says.

“I had people say, ‘You’re going through a bad time, you’ll write about this,’” he says. “I’m not looking for bad times to write about. I’m just trying to get through and keep it together.”

The singer is all showman on stage, but a genuinely unaffected artist showed through in the gaps between his bantering and kitschy humor.

It’s a side of his persona he tries to reinforce in conversation.

“The celebrity life didn’t hold a tremendous appeal to me,” says Mr. Isaak, who for a time dated firebrand comic Margaret Cho. “I don’t have anything against actresses; it’s just that the people I date weren’t based on how much press I was gonna get.”

The son of a forklift operator, Mr. Isaak grew up on country music and the songs of Dean Martin and Mr. Orbison. The young singer got his hands on a secondhand guitar at 13 but didn’t immediately consider a musician’s life.

He graduated with an English degree from the University of the Pacific in California and later earned a living as a film studio tour guide and was an amateur pugilist before drifting back to music.

If celebrity is the coin of the realm, opening act Lisa Marie Presley’s wealth has few peers.

Her name recognition alone bought the 35-year-old neophyte generous applause for her set.

Says a gracious Mr. Isaak of his opening act: “As soon as people see her onstage, they’re realizing they’re looking at Lisa Marie. You’re not thinking about Elvis.”

It’s more likely they were thinking about why she looked so uncomfortable onstage.

Backed by six musicians, including four guitarists, Miss Presley appeared uncertain and shy as she ran through cuts from her debut album, “To Whom It May Concern.” Relying on notes throughout her set, she flipped a page or two from a music stand after each song. The notes kept her rooted to the center of the stage, where she rocked in place and struck glum star poses. Her serviceable voice sounded so husky at times it could barely be heard above the din of her band.

Most acts work their way up playing dives of every description, suffering defeat and indignity along the way. It’s a long, hard slog, but that’s where they work out the kinks in their acts. Miss Presley is doing that on a major tour, a leap she made strictly thanks to her surname. However, Miss Presley isn’t ready for the big time, and she isn’t doing herself any favors trying to rush things. Her awkwardness became all the more glaring once the relaxed Mr. Isaak took the stage.

Mr. Isaak recently wrapped the third and final season of “The Chris Isaak Show,” in which he plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. The show has drawn cheers from critics but only modest ratings.

The singer, who previously acted in 1988’s “Married to the Mob” and 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” says he learned a great deal from the show’s run — he even tried his hand at directing.

Just don’t expect him to become an auteur anytime soon.

“You’ve got to make choices in your life,” he says. Directing would require spending too much time cooped up in an office, working the phones to raise funds and dealing with “a bunch of people with ponytails,” he says.

“I’d rather make a record and go surfing.”

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