Though regarded far-and-wide as the well-coiffed guitarist who ushered in the 1950s-stylized rockabilly revival (with Stray Cats), the big band swing thing (with his self-named Orchestra) and all of its sartorial and tonsorial splendor, Brian Setzer will always be adored by Philly’s old-head punks for his time in Bloodless Pharaohs. At the tail end of the 70s, a pre-Cats Setzer (with his brother Gary) held sway over the Pharaohs, a Talking Heads-y house band, at 21st & South’s Hot Club before turning to rockabilly, heading to the UK (with a crew of locals including then-tour manager-turned-DJ legend, Bobby Startup), and finding fortune and fame.
Knowing that, it was no surprise to see that Setzer’s 15th Anniversary Christmas showcase with a rich 19-piece ensemble at the grand Academy of Music found its crowd with as many families looking for a good, clean night out, as it did many a spikey, grey haired sort. And the fact is, those crowds — and anyone in-between — got a damned good, entertaining time.
This may have been a holiday program with all the bells and whistles (a stage decked out in Christmas pines, snowmen and reindeer) and a playlist given over to AM seasonal radio staples such as Brenda Lee’s bopping “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Hugh Martin’s gently jazzy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the woozy, western swing of “Here Comes Santa Claus” from the Gene Autry songbook. But, as advertised, they rocked. Hard. And swung. Deep. And from there, propelled the expressive, blues-lick-happy Setzer (and his band membership) into quickly, flickering and imaginative solos. It’s easy to forget this fact until you hear him live and loud: Setzer is one of America’s best guitarists, past and present, hands down. Hearing his brand of six-string slinging in a setting so (now) well-known makes you yearn to hear him in other combinations and with other equally audacious players.
That the sense of invention drifted into other holiday tunes’ arrangements was what made the anniversary program vital. The reeds, bones and brass on the holy traditional “Angels We Have Heard On High” could have been a Gil Evans orchestration from all of its genuinely beautiful instrumental colors and shading. Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” was given a bold, jazzy sheen and a bluesy edge. “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus” was a jump swing track that pulled you out of your skin the moment its drums commenced to pound.
That rhythmic overdrive, however, was best served steaming hot on songs of Setzer’s first love — rockabilly — as he ripped out driving, considered guitar solos on “The Dirty Boogie” and “Rockabilly Boogie,” and kept the thrumming beat and twisting guitars going on a surprisingly savage cover of The Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog.” As far as the guitar goes – elegant and speedy, at that – Setzer’s tribute to the recently late, country great Roy Clark, was rascally, poignant and deeply impressionistic. And while another set of country legends (Johnny Cash, Merle Kilgore) got their brassy due on a handsome cover of “Ring of Fire,” Setzer saved the boldest, elastically, elongated arrangement for his own rangy composition, “Rock This Town” and its Christmas coating of many colors and slowed-down breaks to go with its energetic orchestration. It’s hard to imagine Setzer originally writing this simple Stray Cats track with the vigor and brass ballsiness it had on Saturday night, but so be it.
With that, this Christmas show of Setzer’s reinvented itself beyond the cheer of the November-December holiday season into something manic, panicked and pulsating in a fashion only the best big bands could do.
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