Brian Setzer still strutting his rockabilly style

Brian Setzer still strutting his rockabilly style
Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot is performing at the Del Mar Racetrack Aug. 6. Photo by Russ Harrington

Brian Setzer looks back at his career and knows he’s defied the odds.

Forget for a moment that the vast majority of solo artists and bands never get to record albums or tour.

Setzer made it originally as singer/guitarist/songwriter of the Stray Cats playing a style of music that hadn’t been on the charts in decades — rockabilly.

“If you think about it, I’ve gotten pretty lucky with it, being that it was never even popular in the ‘50s,” Setzer said in a phone interview. “But that I actually got it out of my garage is a pretty big deal.”

The Stray Cats weren’t playing the kind of ‘50s rock and roll that turned the likes of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry into stars.

This was raw, caffeinated rockabilly in the vein of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, artists whose success was far more limited than the likes of Presley, Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis.

Yet, the Stray Cats came roaring out of the blocks in America in 1982 with “Built for Speed” (which combined songs from the trio’s first two British albums) and saw the album reach number two on “Billboard” magazine’s album chart and the singles “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” go top 10 on the pop chart.

In the mid-1990s, Setzer caught a second wave of major success with his 17-piece big band, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. The group’s third album, 1998’s “The Dirty Boogie,” went top 10 behind the popular cover of the Louis Prima classic, “Jump, Jive and Wail.”

Considering the expense of taking such a large ensemble on the road, Setzer felt he once again beat the odds.

“There’s no way it should have worked. There’s no way,” Setzer said.

“You gotta think about taking a big band out (on tour), what was popular in ’93? Grunge, it was Kurt Cobain. I mean, there’s no way that thing should have gotten off the ground, especially with 17 people. It’s ridiculous. I just knew it was so good musically. It just moved me. And I thought, if I can play it, I’m going to do it.

“It was like a toddler wobbling, come on, you can make it,” he said.

“And it just kept growing and growing…And yeah, I’ve got it to the point where a lot of people come out to see it and I can swing it.”

In all, the Brian Setzer Orchestra has released seven studio albums, plus three Christmas releases between 1994 and 2010. Setzer will take the Orchestra on its annual holiday tour this fall, but before then, he is returning to his rockabilly roots, playing a few dates with his newest band, Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot.

Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot expands the Stray Cats’ guitar-bass-drums format to a quartet, with Setzer joined by Mark Winchester (bass), Kevin McKendree (piano) and Noah Levy (drums).

The group’s first album, “Rockabilly Riot! All Original,” was released in fall 2014. It’s a lively and accomplished affair, with ravers like “Let’s Shake,” “Rockabilly Blues” and “Cock-a-doodle Don’t” setting the tone. But Setzer varies things, going with a lighter, but still brisk beat on “Vinyl Records,” a shuffle on “Calamity Jane,” a swinging tempo on “Lemme Slide” and injecting a bit of blues into “What’s Her Name.” The ballad “The Girl With Blue In Her Eyes” gives the album a real curveball with its tinge of country and closing time vibe, as does “Blue Lights, Big City,” which sounds like an early Presley ballad, complete with its Jordanaires-ish backing vocals.

In other words, “Rockabilly Riot! All Original” fits well within the stylistic template he created more than 30 years ago with the Stray Cats. Setzer’s fine with the comparison.

“I think basically when I write rockabilly songs, it’s going to be kind of Stray Cats sounding,” he said. “I don’t really write any guidelines, I just write songs. And to me, the Stray Cats didn’t have any sort of those restrictions where you had to think it was blues or it had to belong to a guideline. I just wrote songs and recorded them without thinking if it’s modern or if it’s retro sounding. I think Stray Cats were like that in a lot of ways. We just wanted to make a record that sounded good.”

Fans who see Setzer can expect a healthy selection of songs from the “Rockabilly Riot! All Original” album.

“I want to do ‘Rockabilly Riot’ because boy, it doesn’t make sense to make these records and they disappear. I got some good ones on this one. I got some songs from ‘Ignition,’ the solo record I made (in 2001),” Setzer said, noting that covers of “Great Balls of Fire,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Slow Down,” as well as a Stray Cats hit or two could well be part of the show. “There are quite a few hits there. People that don’t do the hits, it’s kind of a disappointment. They were hits for a reason.”


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