Brian Setzer has now been a big band leader far longer than he was a Stray Cat, but it still seems as if seeing him in a suit, standing ahead of a 17-piece band on a large stage is something special.
And actually, it is. Christmas just makes it more so.
For an artist that took a big risk going even more retro after his first famously retro band broke up, things have turned out well for Mr. Setzer. The December 21 show at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles marked the local stop of the 10th annual Christmas tour with The Brian Setzer Orchestra, and it was an evening of many highlights.
Though an odd choice for beginning a Christmas show, “The Munsters” theme is nevertheless an excellent show of brass and guitar that would be the perfect kick-off to just about any other BSO performance. But it stood out, along with a few slipshod musical moments that strangely somehow kept the proceedings – adorned at either side of the Dolby stage with lighted Christmas trees, Santa, Frosty, and Nutcracker statues – from feeling too polished and aloof. As if Setzer and band are keenly aware of all those Lawrence Welk TV shows from decades ago that seemed as mechanical and bloodless as "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln."
But from that start, things moved quickly, as the band tuned up a pair of more fitting holiday chestnuts, “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus” and “Sleighride,” before jumping back into standard BSO mode with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Setzer acknowledged the change of venue after so many Decembers at the Universal/Gibson Amphitheatre, noting the former location was now part of the Harry Potter ride at the theme park. Honestly, Harry Potter can have it because the acoustics and ambiance of the Dolby are superior any night of the year. For band and fan alike, this is a step up.
Setzer promptly led the band into “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” and motioned for the audience to get to their feet, but the gathering was not yet ready. Even after the first Stray Cats number of the night, “Sexy and 17” and later the delicate instrumental “Sleepwalk” that allowed Setzer to spread out a bit and remind everyone of just how fine a guitar player he is, the assembly remained enthusiastic but mostly seated.
It wasn’t until the brass section took a beer break and Setzer moved his bassist and drummer up front for a rockabilly sub-set that the crowd stayed on its feet. A wonderful rendition of Eddie Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown” was backed up with “Ring of Fire,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Fish Net Stockings,” and “Brand New Cadillac,” during which the brass returned to add a few bars of “Peter Gunn.”
The arrangement of the band’s “Nutcracker Suite” is something to admire live and wound down the evening before a dash through “Rock This Town” and “Jingle Bells” closed the set.
Setzer has created something fun and refeshing out of a lot of old parts and it’s to the music fans' benefit to treat themselves to something so different each December when the BSO comes to town. It might not be as sweaty as other shows you’ll see, but it’s impossible not to enjoy. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw would dig it too. And somewhere, they probably are.