Monday, December 19, 2016

Brian Setzer Orchestra concert review: Los Angeles

Brian Setzer knows how to defy the odds. In a career that spans more than three decades, he’s done it twice.

The first time came in the early 1980s, when Setzer found success fronting classic rock ‘n’ roll-influenced trio Stray Cats at the height of the new wave era. 

A dozen years later, the Long Island, N.Y.-native formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra, combining his love of swing and rockabilly music and gained popularity while nu-metal ruled the airwaves.

Setzer recalled BSO’s beginnings Saturday night at a sold-out Microsoft Theater during his annual Christmas Rocks! tour. “People said we were crazy. Then we had a song on the radio.”

The event drew a variety of fans sporting everything from holiday-inspired attire (ugly Christmas sweaters, elf hats, lighted bulbs) to clothes with a greaser or pin-up-girl theme. Many families had their photos taken with a Grinch character or Santa Claus seated in front of Setzer’s favorite Gretsch guitars.

The presentation – which mixes Christmas songs and tunes from the BSO catalog with choice cuts from Setzer’s Stray Cats and solo careers – was just as joyful as the first time I saw it in 2002 (at its previous home, the Universal Amphitheatre).

Taking the festively decorated stage to Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka,” the 19-piece orchestra kicked off the 100-minute, 19-song set with a snazzy “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (which also opens last year’s “Rockin’ Rudolph” album).

Setzer immediately tore into a lightning-quick electric guitar display on a sizzling “Hoodoo Voodoo Doll.” More impressive fretwork would commence from him throughout the evening. The audience stood for the big slinky 1982 hit single “Stray Cat Strut” and relished John Hatton’s deft stand-up bass solo.

Both female backing vocalists (including Setzer’s wife, Julie) added sass to “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” as their main man had a blast doing an expressive vocal delivery and strolling the stage with his lime green guitar. Then different musicians had their chance in the spotlight.

A high-energy “Gene & Eddie,” Setzer’s tribute to Messrs. Vincent and Cochrane, was an early standout (check out the equally killer version on Setzer’s latest CD+DVD, “Rockabilly Riot! Osaka Rocka: Live in Japan 2016”). “Here Comes Santa Claus” featured cooing Andrews Sisters-type vocalizations and rollicking piano work by the amazing Kevin McKendree.

Plenty of swing dancing commenced around the venue by the time BSO got around to its signature song, “Jump Jive An’ Wail.” Setzer’s narrated drama during a heavy cover of AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock” worked well and was a pleasant surprise. Later, the stripped-down segment featuring rockabilly nuggets “Mystery Train,” “Put Your Cat Clothes On” and “Fishnet Stockings” went down a storm.

A bright ‘n’ brassy “Rock This Town” saw the musicians pull out all the stops and Setzer played the life out of his guitar to conclude the main set. They encored with an enchanting “Nutcracker Suite,” and confetti dropped for the singalong “Jingle Bells” finale.

The Bellfuries performed a solid 35-minute opening set including selections from their current album, “Workingman’s Bellfuries.” The long-running Austin roots rock combo fared best during “Bad Seed Sown,” “You Must Be a Loser” (which singer/guitarist Joey Simeone dedicated to his ex-wives) and “Beaumont Blues.”

My review originally appeared at
Photos by Drew A. Kelley

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