Brian Setzer now a holiday mainstay
Published: Friday, December 20, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 19, 2013 at 10:58 p.m.
It seems to get earlier every year, but like clockwork every November, before the turkeys start roasting for Thanksgiving, Brian Setzer dusts off his Santa cap, straps on his hollow-body guitar and hits the road.
Who: The Brian Setzer Orchestra 10th anniversary Christmas Rocks tour
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 26
Where: Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Road, Santa Rosa
This year, it was Nov. 11 in Minneapolis.
No one could have guessed, way back when the rockabilly front man was all over MTV with the Stray Cats in the 1980s, that Jingle Bells (and all the other jingles that go with it) would become his stock in trade — hand in hand with the jump, jive and wail.
Just as some jazz artists feel more appreciated on the European circuit, or blues bands are beloved in Scandinavia, or metal bands are big in Japan — Setzer is the darling of the holiday circuit.
For the past 10 years, he has criss-crossed the country many times over for his “Christmas Rocks” tour, even dropping in for shows at the White House and the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.
Backed by a massive 18-piece orchestra, the set list romps and rollicks from “Boogie Woogie Santa” and “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus” to non-holiday classics like “Peggy Sue.”
Before the 54-year-old crooner rolls through the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 26 to extend Christmas by one more day this year, here are the Top 5 things you need to know about Brian Setzer right now:
1. It all started with The Governator. In 1996, the producers of “Jingle All the Way,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, asked Setzer to record a rockabilly version of “Jingle Bells.” He was initially reluctant, having never recorded holiday music. But by the time he was done, he'd contributed four tracks to the holiday comedy soundtrack, including the chestnut “So They Say It's Christmas.” Several years later, after Los Angeles radio station KROQ locked “Jingle Bells” into heavy rotation every holiday season, the “Christmas Rocks” tour was the logical next step.
2. Strength in numbers is the name of the game. Setzer rolls into town with 17 supporting characters in tow, including five sax players, four trumpet players, a pair of back-up singers in Santa's helper costumes (aka the Vixens), a bass player in green locks and a stand-up bass in a Christmas hat. With horns bobbing in unison and back-up singers high-kicking, the Brian Setzer Orchestra takes a big-band jazz construct and converts it into a swing revival band with a massive rockabilly wall of Christmas sound.
3. Setzer has figured out the formula to make it last 10 years: The show is not all about Christmas. That means “Stray Cat Strut” segues into “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Other Stray Cats songs like “Rock this Town” and “Fishnet Stockings” share the stage with Eddie Cochran's “Nervous Breakdown” and even “The Munsters” TV show theme song.
“I've worked through that where it's become an enjoyable thing, where I don't feel like I have to do all Christmas songs,” he said in a recent interview.
4. Back in the day, when his pompadour was much higher and required much more product, Setzer and the rest of the fledgling Stray Cats fled New York for the U.K. in 1980, where they built a following and scored several hits. By the mid '80s, the singles “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock this Town” had caught on in the U.S.
Over the years, Setzer has picked up odd jobs as lead guitarist in Robert Plant's The Honeydrippers band, played Eddie Cochran in the film “La Bamba” and, in his most self-conscious moment, he voiced himself in “The Simpsons.” Playing a counselor at a rock 'n' roll camp, he terrorizes Homer Simpson before apologizing and saying, “I hope you won't judge the entire Brian Setzer Orchestra based on my actions.”
5. Recent reviews for the 2013 “Christmas Rocks” tour are mostly gushing. The Milwaukee Journal said, “The holiday season hasn't even really begun, but it's hard to imagine a Christmas concert this year topping this one.” The Buffalo News said, “In addition to being one of the finest electric guitarists going — the man can play like Les Paul and Eddie Cochran with equal conviction and chops — Setzer is a great band leader.”
Packed into the more than 90-minute set, look out for an instrumental swing through “Angels We Have Heard on High,” at least five horn solos in “Boogie Woogie Santa” and even an adaptation of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, email@example.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.
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