While Brian Setzer never set out to reinvent the wheels of rockabilly and swing music, there is no denying that he has successfully breathed new life into both genres and created a body of work that has stood the test of time for more than three decades.
The one-time leader of the Stray Cats, who went from his hometown of Massapequa, New York, to mass popularity the world over, has thrived long since the likes of "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut" hit the airwaves back in the early '80s. Countless copycat artists have tried and failed to capture audiences in these musical forms. And yet Setzer has consistently re-energized rockabilly and swing, creating new songs that would make its originators proud.
His latest homage to the rockabilly genre made famous by Sun Studio greats, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others, is Rockabilly Riot, an album that purrs like a kitten and revs it up in the tradition of the aforementioned Memphis studio sounds. Setzer's latest release does nothing to dampen his reputation as one of the most iconic guitarists in modern rock.
On the heels of the release of his latest rockabilly opus, released this past August, Setzer swings into Phoenix for his 11th annual "Christmas Rocks Extravaganza" at the Celebrity Theatre on December 15. Setzer and his 18-piece orchestra plan on lighting the tree of Christmas ablaze with a mixture of holiday Christmas rock classics, Stray Cat cuts and Setzer solo numbers, including a few potentially, from Rockabilly Riot.
"It's so enjoyable for me because not only do I get to play my own versions of holiday music, but also songs I recorded with my orchestra and the Stray Cats," Setzer says. "I love breaking down the set in the middle and just play rockabilly music with a three-piece, which is where I started. I get to change up the set every year, and it's also my favorite time of year."
Following the break-up of Stray Cats and occasional reunions with Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom, Setzer began a quest to rediscover himself. After a two-year stint with Robert Plant and the Honeydrippers between 1985 and 1986, Setzer began working in earnest on solo material, highlighted by his second solo album, Live Nude Guitars which gained Setzer some critical acclaim.
"I don't think we pictured much after the Stray Cats," Setzer admits. "Back then, I think we thought that was the be-all, end-all. We didn't really think about that too much."
It was in the early '90s that Setzer re-energized his career with resurrecting jump blues or swing music. His break-through 1998 swing album Dirty Boogie cracked the Billboard Top 10 and gained Setzer an even larger following. His remake of the Louis Prima hit, "Jump, Jive an' Wail" garnered him a hit.
He would go on to win three Grammy Awards -- Best Pop Performance Duo/Group for "Jump Jive An' Wail," and two Best Pop Instrumental Performance awards for "Sleep Walk" and "Caravan," both classics Setzer refurbished with a modern touch.
In 2001, after the Swing revival mellowed, Setzer's revisited his own rockabilly roots with Ignition, homage to Elvis Presley's infamous 1969 TV special performance.
Over the course of his solo career, Setzer has recorded nine quality dyed-in-the-wool rockabilly and rock classic albums and nine studio albums with his Orchestra, to go with a slew of live and best of compilations.
And through it all, Setzer is a rockabilly man, but he comes to it honestly, and not by design; it circulates through his every pore.
"You know, here is what happens," he begins. "I just really write songs and I don't really think about where it's going to take me. And usually the new songs kind of tells me what kind of record it should be. About three-quarters of the way through, it tells me, 'You know this needs an upright piano, a stand-up bass, it needs to be a rockabilly record.'"
On Rockabilly Riot, Setzer works with veteran musician craftsmen Mark Winchester on bass, Noah Levy on drums and Kevin McKendree on piano. The new album was produced by longtime British producer Peter Collins who has worked with a variety of bands such as: Rush, Suicidal Tendencies, The Indigo girls and Alice Cooper.
Setzer, no stranger to working with Brits, had legendary Wales rocker Dave Edmunds produce the Stray Cats. For him, the Brits have an unquenchable thirst for rockabilly.
"I think with the British, they respect rockabilly, and re-examined it, you know. Whereas, we throw it away; we're a disposable society like that. All the great jazz and blues artist end up living in Europe. They really love our music."
"Let's Shake" is three chords, but it hasn't been done," he notes of his new album's opener, which sounds like it was taken right out of Eddie Cochran songbook, but is distinctively Setzer. "You just gotta try it, really. Take a lot of modern songs, it all works different. Everything has been done, so you have to try and come up with something that hasn't. You have to come up with a lick that hasn't been done before. That is what I do on guitar."
Beside "Let's Shake," highlights are the "Nothing Is a Sure Thing," which has the jangle guitar of Presley's "Little Sister, "The Girl with the Blues in Her Eyes," which features Marty Robbin-esque haunting yearnings. Even the zany titled "I Should 'A Had a V-8" and "Cockadoodle Don't" show Setzer's rock virtuosity against the backdrop of humorous lyrics bordering on Reverend Horton Heat-style tongue-in-cheek, with plenty of jaw-dropping riffs.
And while the likes of Sun artists like Lewis, Perkins, Presley, Vincent rank among the top in the rockabilly annals, Setzer is most like Cochran in that he writes his songs, lyrically and musically, and he plays guitar, and he has refined that sound.
"The only sound you can get that [rockabilly sound] out of is a hollow-body guitar," explains Setzer who now lives in Minneapolis, where he shot a video for "Let's Shake." "I can't get that sound out of a solid body guitar. There is something about that Gretsch guitar that captures the sound of it.
"And, as far as the tone, I like to get it somewhere between a twangy tone and an over-driven tone. Being that an over-driven sound would be a power rock sound, and I don't want that, but I don't want it to be too plunky. So you dial it in between those two. That's a good sound for me."
It apparently has sounded good enough for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. This past October, the museum added a replica version of Setzer legendary orange Gretsch 6120 "Stray Cat" guitar to its hallowed halls to join the likes of John Coltrane's saxophone, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, Prince's Yellow Cloud electric guitar and Eddie Van Halen's "Frank 2" guitar.
But the guitar itself, while noted for its tonal qualities alone could not have put it in the museum. Setzer, created the sounds, but he describes his writing process quite simply.
"I go back to the square one, you sit there with your guitar, you're relaxed; I like to put on something in the background, like a baseball game, and my mind just wonders. And, after a while, something will catch and I'll build on that. But it's not very easy, because if it was easy, everybody would be doing that. Something comes out and happens that is unique. That's a little gift."
As Setzer hits the holiday road, fans should once again see just how unique the 55-year-old can make the two youthful genres sound. He will no doubt giving an early Christmas gift with his orchestra shows and new album that still shakes, rattles and rolls long after it is opened.
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