I've enjoyed Chris Isaak's music, especially his moody San Francisco Days and Baja Sessions albums, so it was an easy pick to review the DVD of his 2003 live performance on PBS' Soundstage. It's an entertaining concert, with Isaak trotting out a number of fan favorites, though as a DVD, it's not one of the stronger concert presentations that I've seen.
The set list is a mix of songs from various of Isaak's albums, ranging from down-beat and melancholy to more energetic pop-rock: "American Boy," "Wicked Game," "Heart-Shaped World," Go Walking Down There," "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing," "Courthouse," "Somebody's Crying," "One Day," "San Francisco Days," "Forever Blue," and "Super Magic 2000." These songs serve up a broad slice of Isaak's discography, with selections coming from five of his last six albums, Heart Shaped World (1989) San Francisco Days (1993), Forever Blue (1995), Speak of the Devil (1998), and Always Got Tonight (2002), with the exception (to my disappointment) that the selection ignores Baja Sessions (1996).
The performances are solid, close enough to the studio versions as to give me nothing particular to comment about. This is more of a Chris Isaak sampler than an innovative live performance; I suspect he may be a little tired of dragging out well-worn pieces like "Somebody's Crying," but in any case these songs all seemed to be crowd-pleasers at Soundstage, and Isaak gives straightforward renditions. Isaak offers up some between-set chatter, but I have to admit that it didn't add much to the overall performance, as his comments seemed awkward or slightly jumbled, as if he hadn't given any particular thought to what he was going to say, and was just winging it on the spot.
Overall, it's an entertaining concert, with the editing and camera work handled well enough that the experience is presented quite well to the viewing audience at home. The only real fault in the main program is simply that it's rather short; at only 47 minutes and eleven songs, it has an abbreviated feel to it that's a bit disappointing.
Don't get your hopes up: this is a perfectly adequate video transfer, but it's nothing outstanding. The cover proclaims "captured in hi-definition" (they're the ones who left off the -gh in "high," not me), but what really matters is how the material is transferred, not how it's captured. As they say, there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, especially when it comes to compression. In this case, nothing has gone really wrong, but it's not fabulous either. Close-ups look nicely clean and reasonably sharp, but anything in middle distance or farther is quite soft. Colors look bright and lively, and contrast is handled acceptably.
The program is nominally presented in 1.33:1, but in fact it's really a 1.66:1 presentation (non-anamorphic), with very narrow black bars at top and bottom.
Two audio options are included here: a Dolby 5.1 track and a Dolby 2.0 stereo track. The 2.0 track is to be avoided if possible, as it's very flat and unengaging. The 5.1 is certainly better, though it's not one of the better ones that I've heard. The sound is clear and clean, though sometimes I felt that it was a little flat. The surround channels are used to a moderate extent throughout the program, mainly for background sound and audience noise, as the main force of the performances seemed to be focused in the center channels.
Let's get the disappointment out of the way right now: the "bonus tracks" listed are not, in fact, bonus Chris Isaak songs, as one might reasonably expect on a Chris Issak concert DVD. Instead, they're apparently from Soundstage productions with other artists, none of whom I was particularly interested in. (Sorry, but I wanted Isaak, not a mixed bag of other guys). We get "Let's Not Say Goodbye Anymore" and "Let It Be Me" by Raul Malo, "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" by Lyle Lovett, "Political Science" by Randy Newman, and "Takin' It to the Streets" by Michael McDonald and others.
Other than that, we get a smattering of the usual minor features. There's a paragraph of "show description" (Why? We already bought it and probably already watched it), a photo gallery, very brief text blurbs on the band members, and a discography. The "Backstage Pass" section is nothing more than short snippets of text information on various technical aspects of the performance, such as lighting and camera work.
The music in Chris Isaak: Soundstage is quite good; that's clear enough. Chris Isaak fans will have nothing to complain about on that score. However, that's not enough to merit a purchase recommendation. Given that the songs aren't given any distinctive handling here, and that the program overall is quite short (only 47 minutes), combined with the not-very-good special features, I'd say that this would only be worth buying if you're new to Chris Isaak's music and you like the idea of a short sampler. For anyone who already has his albums on CD, this might be worth a rental if you want to see a "live" performance, but that's it. Rent it.