“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.
The cool cat with the arresting pompadour. I know lots of people who think of him as a poseur, a tattooed culture vulture playing in an artform that doesn’t belong to him. Brian Setzer was born in 1959, and his parents likely loved this music, meaning he grew up with it in the house, in his life, and developed the love for it many of us did for whatever the soundtrack of our lives was. Maybe that wasn’t the case and he fell into it later, or hell, maybe they’re right and he’s just an ass ripping off the 1951-1958 sound shamelessly. Whatever the case, he’s still one of the best popular guitarists on the planet and an absolute master at rockabilly and a couple other styles. He’s a Grammy winner a few times over, and that’s not because of outstanding sales. Yes, I’m a fan, have been since the Stray cats started getting airplay (and MTV exposure) in 1983, seen the Cats and BSO live, but I maintain he’s a huge talent.
This album was recorded live in Japan, a popular stop for Brian’s tours, on the road with 13, his 13th studio solo album. Besides tracks from those albums, Setzer draws on the Stray Cats and Brian Setzer Orchestra catalogs. On this date he was joined by the guys from his ’68 Comeback Special project and a hotshot piano player from Nashville, making a Sun Studios Elvis kind of combo that is perfectly matched to the material.
And that material? Glad you asked. There are several cuts from his Rockabilly Riot tribute to Sun, leading off with “Red Hot”, the Billy Lee Riley signature tune. Brian and the band hit the ground running and only gain speed. Brian is a better technical singer at this point than Riley was when he recorded the number and the sound quality is far superior to anything available at 706 Union Street. The crowd noise is never annoying, as can happen on live sets, but it is present, reminding the listener what an appreciative audience the band enjoyed. This is honestly not one of my favorite rockabilly numbers, but this is a great version and I don’t begrudge its inclusion here a bit. It sets the tone for a great night.
“This Cat’s on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of Brian’s hits from the Orchestra, and it doesn’t suffer in the least from the stripped-down rearrangement it receives here. Written for that 17-piece outfit, this is a reimagining that places the horn trills and fills with the piano and leaves the balance in the more than capable hands of the guitar man. The fireworks simply never stop from Setzer, and songs you know they’ve played thousands of times never sound dull from him and the band.
Three more Sun classics, “Get It Off Your Mind”, “Slow Down”, and “Put Your Cat Clothes On”, show that Brian’s frame of reference extends far beyond greatest hits. The love for Carl Perkins is deep here and well-deserved from one guitarist to another. Bringing these songs to a new generation in another world is more than a show; it’s virtually missionary work.
“Take a Chance on Love” and “Broken Down Piece of Junk” are the first numbers in the show from the album the tour is supporting. They’re great and fit perfectly well with the rest of the program. “Chance” is a little darker and slightly more modern but still of a piece with the sound. “Piece of Junk” is another Setzer original with a traditional sound and feel, the kind of hot rod music that defined rockabilly.
Two more tracks from the Riot album, “Peroxide Blonde in a Hopped-Up Model Ford” and “Tennessee Zip”, continue with a couple of Brian’s and rockabilly’s favorite themes, cars and girls, and they are full of life, the former a dragstrip fable and the latter a sockhop mover. Awesome stuff from a golden era, then another track from 13, this one the instrumental “Mini Bar Blues”, with jazz and country chords and a bouncing, driving beat that Setzer renders all by himself.
And in terms of time, that’s the first half of the show. If this were actually on vinyl, we’d be flipping the disc here, and the timing couldn’t be better. If “Mini Bar Blues” is an entr’acte and release to intermission, we return to our seats for the launch of the rockabilly rocket that takes us through the fabulous remainder of the show. Brian gives a tender introduction to “Runaway Boys”, honestly not one of my favorites but he gives a great performance of a song he’s been playing for 30 years. It’s followed by the ultimate Stray Cats anthem, “Stray Cat Strut”, also brilliant here, and the addition of piano to both these numbers gives them new life.
Another number from 13, “Rocket Cathedrals”, follows, and what a great song. It stands out from the rockabilly of the rest of the album in style but sounds terrific. Just a fantastic number, and it helps propel the show into the last three tracks, the fan-favorite “Fishnet Stockings”, “Rock This Town”, and the relatively new classic closer, “Gene and Eddie.” Exciting versions of real rockabilly and the audience loves it. Setzer throws magic from his guitar throughout the show and is still warming up here at the end. This album is pure thrill, a great party choice. Did you notice, no ballads? I don’t recommend it for driving unless you have plenty of spare cash for speeding tickets.