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Chris Isaak returns to TV [UPDATE]

February 25, 2009 | 12:59 pm

The singer will combine interviews with performances from musical guests in as relaxed an atmosphere as he can create.

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Backstage on dinner break during a long day of taping in Hollywood for his new A&E/Bio music series that premieres tonight, Bay Area rocker Chris Isaak was pondering the government's plan to bail out our staggering economy.

"They're giving millions to Detroit for making bad cars, and millions to banks for writing bad loans," Isaak, 52, said in typically droll fashion, nary a hair out of place in that perfect mahogany pompadour of his. "Well, what about bad songwriters? I've written plenty of bad songs in my life -- where's my bailout?"

You wouldn't know it from his new album, "Mr. Lucky," released on Tuesday to coincide with the premiere of "The Chris Isaak Hour," which brings him back to cable TV after three successful seasons earlier this decade in Showtime's "The Chris Isaak Show."

In place of that series' fictionalized look at a musician's life on- and offstage, the new program is all about real music. It's a combination performance-interview spotlight that gives each week's guests the chance to dig in and explore the creative process with their witty and knowledgeable host.

The first round of episodes highlights the music and careers of Trisha Yearwood, the Smashing Pumpkins, Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens), Stevie Nicks, Glen Campbell, Chicago and Michael Bublé.

Musicians typically play five or six songs live in the studio, and Isaak usually joins on one or two. Then they sit down on a couch on the '50s-retro set to talk. Isaak keeps a couple of guitars within reach in case anyone wants to illustrate a point musically, which is precisely what happened during both the Islam and Smashing Pumpkins tapings.

The banter is often musically insightful and occasionally loopy, as when Isaak asked Yusuf -- who walked away from his music career three decades ago to devote his life to his newfound Muslim faith -- whether he got a lot of girls back when he was pop star.

While Pumpkins founding members Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin were busy running through a handful of songs, Isaak looked on with admiration, and just a bit of trepidation, from his director's chair in front of a video monitor.

"I'm a little nervous," Isaak whispers. "Billy's really smart. I read his book of poetry, and it's not just somebody putting crazy words together and trying to make them rhyme. It all makes sense, and it's really heavy stuff. I want to ask him about it."

Once they hit the couch, for which a mural of the Golden Gate Bridge provides the backdrop, Corgan is characteristically intense. "Life is dark, and we know we're going to die one day," he says matter-of-factly. Corgan, erudite and not without a sense of humor, takes the conversation into areas that his publicist, looking on from one of the green rooms, says he's never opened up about before.

Likewise, Yusuf (using just the one name professionally) credits Isaak for allaying his trepidation about reconnecting with the one aspect of the music business he didn't mind leaving behind three decades ago.

"The promotional side I was never happy with," the soft-spoken singer and songwriter, 61, said in his dressing room, still genial after several hours on the set. "But with a show like this, you have a chance to relax in an environment that's most sympathetic to the songs."

Yusuf's is the kind of reaction Isaak had hoped for when he said yes to A&E after turning down several offers for reality shows that were sent his way after the Showtime series ended.

"They asked me early on if I wanted to bring in an audience, and I said no," Isaak said. "When you hire an audience, they're not always the fans of that band. When you hire a generic audience, they're hired to stay there all day. They don't know the music, and it shows.

"I'd much rather have the band be able to get up and jam and just do their thing," he said. "They can have a second take if they want. They don't have to worry about how they look to an audience, so there's a lot more freedom, performance-wise."

That's one key difference between "The Chris Isaak Hour" and the Sundance Channel's "Spectacle," which premiered in December. Host Elvis Costello and his guests, including Herbie Hancock, She & Him, Elton John, Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, conduct their performances and Q&A sessions in front of an audience.

Isaak's wellspring of musical trivia often comes in handy -- he got Corgan and company smiling by imitating the way Elvis would spit in the middle of song introductions. And when Yusuf showed up with guitarist Gunnar Nelson as part of his entourage, Isaak quickly broke into spot-on renditions of hits by Gunnar's dad, Ricky Nelson.

In a bit of Hollywood serendipity, Nelson pointed out that the soundstage where Isaak's show is being taped is the same one his dad grew up on in the '50s and '60s during the long run of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."

Isaak hopes to carve out a little equal time for music history on the small screen. "I remember watching a talk show where they had some actress on -- someone I never heard of before or since -- and they had her on for two nights, and she was talking about things like how her top slipped at some event. And the musical guest was Fats Domino. He played one song, then they said, "Good night, Fats!" You could have asked him something."

He says he's serious about doing his homework so he can create a meaningful dialogue with his guests. He also gets a lot of help from one of the show's producers, Rolling Stone veteran David Wild.

"I don't think it's rocket science or brain surgery," Isaak said. "From the beginning, I said I want this to be a show where people don't have to worry about timing or lighting or hitting a mark or a picking up a cue. None of that stuff is important. I'd rather have my show look amateurish but be full of fun."

-Randy Lewis

Related: Elvis Costello's 'Spectacle' shares the inside-the-music spotlight

Photo: Chris Isaak, left, and Michael Buble. Credit: Courtney Lindberg

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post referred to David Wild as the show's writer. He is one of the producers

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