If nothing else, the controversial Rolling Stone list of greatest guitarists has generated much thought. I was sitting around thinking about the different guitar sounds I value, and it suddenly occurred to me how much I love James Calvin Wilsey’s (ex of the punk band the Avengers) neo-classicist work with Chris Isaak. I don’t think it coincidence that Isaak’s sound has deteriorated since Wilsey left the band after San Francisco Days, though I find Isaak an exceptional talent still.
In 1981 producer Erik Jacobsen met a young rockabilly singer with great promise named Chris Isaak. Jacobsen nurtured Isaak through the ’80s, resulting in ’89’s brilliant Heart Shaped World with the hit single “Wicked Game”: a sonorous and gauzy update on Roy Orbison featuring James Calvin Wilsey’s dreamy, neo-surf guitar. Jacobsen’s production moves like a fog of longing down a desolate strip of quarter-moon-lit beach and reverberates across a vast and uncaring sea.
Follow-ups San Francisco Days (with “Can’t Do a Thing,” “Two Hearts” and Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man”) and Forever Blue (with “Somebody’s Crying” and “Go Walking Down There”) move in similarly excellent, timeless circles where Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins vie for dangerously beautiful women.
’96’s Baja Sessions finds Isaak south of the border, still blue, but holding up with the help of his friends and some great cover tunes, including “Only the Lonely” (making the Orbison comparison concrete), “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” and “Yellow Bird.”
But where has James Calvin Wilsey gone? I found this report on his band the Mysteries from 1998:
- James Calvin Wilsey is singing Chris Isaak’s song “Wicked Game.” But his mouth is closed; his lips aren’t moving.
Wilsey’s voice is being borne on the strings of his guitar. And as he stands there on the small stage of
Al’s Bar on Tuesday night, striking a guitar-hero stance, he delivers the song’s new voice via a snaky, lonesome lick.
These days, “Wicked Game” (RealAudio excerpt of Isaak’s version) has been renamed “Wicked Thang,” as it exists in the repertoire of Wilsey’s new, western-rock outfit, the Mysteries.
Wilsey, who played with Isaak for 12 years, from 1979-91, has spent the eight years since he left the country-fied singer’s band sailing the South Seas and trying to decide what direction to point in next.
That’s when the Mysteries appeared on his horizon.
The all-instrumental foursome — which also includes Telecaster and pedal-steel guitarist Chris Lawrence, bassist Chuck Morris and drummer Bogie — is making its debut at an unannounced show at Al’s Bar…. [VH1]
I find no evidence they actually recorded.