Brian Setzer, who appeared in K-State’s McCain Auditorium last week, is a remarkable musician. He must have been born with huge talent and then he must have spent the last forty or so years lying around the house with an arch top Gretsch guitar in his hand and his amplifier on, ever working to excel. For skill and imagination, he’d be tough to match.
Luckily his eighteen-piece swing band is disciplined and talented. Otherwise their solid hour-and- forty-minute Christmas show would have been over-shadowed by the performance of opening act Firebird. These three Aussies came out and played a quick forty-minute set of rock-a-billy songs.
They were efficient and, except for a couple of arrangements that accommodated changes in rhythms just for choruses, say, the material was straight-ahead. Firebird offered screaming vocals—all three members sang—and conventional rock-a-billy instrumentation—guitar, upright bass, drum kit—as well as the clothes and pompadours one associates with rockers playing “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
I wondered if they knew Bill Monroe had played that song on that stage not that many years ago. And then I tried to remember if I’d seen the Stray Cats, Setzer’s first national band, in Ahearn Fieldhouse back thirty years ago.
After a break, Setzer and his new band came on, and from then on there wasn’t much time for reminiscing. Oh, we did hear some of the really old material associated with the strolling guitarist— “Sexy and 17,” “Rock This Town,” and maybe half a dozen other recognizable Setzer numbers were performed.
But the set began with the theme from the TV show “The Munsters,” which the band played with good-humor but without smirking. And this was the key to the success of the show and to much of what Setzer has accomplished through the years: while others think that Christmas music, “review” shows, Les Paul runs, and rock-a-billy sounds are just cheap cliches, Setzer can take them for what they are, embellishing as he goes with sympathetic but wide-ranging guitar solo lines.
So here we got the stage crowded with seasonal decorations—a snow man, several decorated trees, and backdrops that looked like Hanna-Barbera cells, a couple of them featuring a cartoon Setzer. On stage he wore a silvery frock coat with black velvet collar. The two female singers wore sparkly short dresses with white fur trim and kept up constant and energetic dance moves.
The similarly choreographed wind players, sitting behind lit music stands (from which hung Christmas stockings), had a couple of uniform changes, the second one featuring black shawl collars on their leopard-print jackets. The doghouse bassist, Johnny Hatton, had partly green hair. Dr. Seuss’s Grinch and Santa each visited the stage at one time.
But none of this seemed patronizing. The performers had visible enthusiasm that was too consistent to be cynically adopted. OK. They were playing Eddie Cochran by way of Carl Perkins. But they weren’t kidding about it. They were enjoying it the same way Perkins always did.
Setzer sang and played his way through a list of Christmas songs, most of them recognizable. Included were “Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” (leading us in singing “in excelsis deo” in each chorus). Also on the set list were “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” and a seasonal song with the tune of the theme from “The Flintstones.”
He directed the band when he wasn’t picking. And he directed individual sax and trombone and trumpet players to take solos, all brief and usually good. Still, Setzer did most of the soloing, and his technique was matched by his ability to come up with new ideas over and over.
Eventually everybody but Hatton and drummer Tony Pia were dismissed for a bit. With Setzer they played some hot rock, including a Clash song and the Orchestra’s “Fishnet Stockings.” The bassist from Firebird came out to participate in a complicated bass duet and musicians’ pyramid.
The encore included an interesting arrangement of some of the best known tunes from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet, snow, treats tossed from the stage, and a couple of hearty rounds of applause from the happy but exhausted audience.
One of the reasons a show like this one works is because rock was designed for loutish crowds in crummy dance halls. Setzer’s Christmas show was loud (visually as well as musically) and flashy and fast, so it simply rolled over the annoyances of late arrivers and audience members who had to have their electronic devices on, the screens distracting anyone behind them.
And, as Setzer’s music is always dance music, it was nice that audience action also included participation in the form of jitter-bugging down right in front of the stage. That distracted no one. Setzer least of all.