By Mike Finkelstein
On a balmy Friday night still throbbing from a blazing L.A. heat-wave, The Brian Setzer Orchestra played the first of a three-night stand of shows at the packed Hollywood Bowl for the closing Fireworks Finale. Very early in their set the band played “This Cat’s on a Hot Tin Roof,” and it was surely apropos.
In the early 80’s Brian Setzer led the Stray Cats with a successful and impressive esthetic of ‘50’s style, strong songwriting, and polished musicianship. Their winsome presentation of the period icons was a major factor behind ‘50’s culture becoming hip again in the early ‘80’s. They had hits on the radio and on MTV. Leopard skin and marching band outfits came back into style. The Stray Cats only lasted about four years out of the gate but the songs were so evocative that they pointed enticingly to the crossing paths of rockabilly and swing music.
Setzer certainly was aware of the possibilities and after a somewhat tepid solo stint, he formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra to specialize in revving up ‘40’s and ‘50’s rockin’ music. Going from the three piece Stray Cats to the BSO is like upgrading from a hot rod bucket-T into a long-wing cherry red Cadillac convertible. Featuring thirteen horns, two backup singers and of course, bass, drums and Setzer’s wailing fleet of guitars over the mix, the format is too cool to do anything less that rock like gangbusters.
The BSO must make Setzer just giddy with musical options as nearly anything he might choose to arrange with them will sound huge and nuanced. The mere idea of substituting red-hot electric guitar for brass or wind solos over the big band horn arrangement is cool in and of itself, but Setzer then sells the sound in his performance. An electric guitar cuts swiftly through the horns and because he plays a big jazz box electric Gretsch through an exemplary Fender amp the sound is clean, brilliant, hot, and definitely vintage.
Brian Setzer’s guitar style is rooted in his understanding of the harmony and motion in the chords he plays. Much of his music tends to use cascading chord scales with beautiful passing diminished tones that really color a set of changes. A lot of his approach centers on involved chord patterns stretching the entire length and width of the neck and quick linear flurries of notes separating the chords. The brass arrangements for the BSO seem to grow naturally from these distinctive intervals. It makes for a very tidy harmonic connection.
Friday night’s program delved into theme music (“Hawaii 5-0,” “Harlem Nocturne”), classic big band snap (“Jump, Jive and Wail”), and soulful instrumentals like Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk.” “Sleepwalk” is a song that is all about tone and intervals and it was a vehicle for the BSO. It featured a splendid chord solo and some gorgeous work from Setzer with the vibrato arm of his guitar. He convincingly summoned up the original’s lap steel vibe on his big ole’ Gretsch and just took off running with it from there. Just as impressive was the sound of the horns supplying the chord textures to this hauntingly beautiful peace of music.
They also broke out a stable of Stray Cats rockabilly hits ranging from “Rock this Town” to “Fishnet Stockings” and “Runaway Boys.” Featuring Johnny Hatton on bass and Tommy Pia on streamlined drums, these tunes were performed in stripped down mode at the lip of the stage. Of course, they couldn’t resist getting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins, involved with Stray Cats material…and that’s how we got to see 96 musicians play the “Stray Cat Strut.”
The last song of the evening was a strong cover of Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac,” a song popularized by the Clash in the ‘80’s on London Calling. But to hear Brian Setzer and company play it, the tune really sounded like it had been written for them. Throughout the night it became increasingly obvious that a lot of rock and roll tunes lend themselves well to a big band arrangement. The Brian Setzer Orchestra has carved out a fine niche for themselves making this type of music come alive.
Perhaps because it barely cooled down in the evening the crowd seemed almost muted by the heat. As a result of that heat Setzer didn’t last much past the second tune in his shiny black pinstriped suit coat. It was time to roll up the sleeves and get down to business. He still wears his hair in a pompadour but it is graying now, not dyed blonde. He still has a whole lot of pep in his step, and still has the moves and chops of a natural born rock ‘n’ roller… and he’s still playing guitar like a panther.
That the horn players were at times wearing leopard skin blazers, or that there were dancers doing some nicely choreographed ‘50’s rockabilly moves was a formality but it was also icing on the cake for this rockin’ event.
Photos by Bonnie Perkinson