STRAY CATS RE­GAIN THEIR STRUT

Clas­sic hits and new songs are in the mix as the retro rock­a­billy trio re­unites for its 40th an­niver­sary

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY SE­LENA FRAGASSI Se­lena Fragassi is a lo­cal free­lance writer.

It couldn’t be a stranger — or more ap­pro­pri­ate — time to un­leash a live al­bum. But lis­ten­ing to the Stray Cats’ new of­fer­ing “Rocked This Town — From LA To London” (out Sept. 11 on Surf­dog Records), there’s an im­me­di­ate grat­i­tude to be trans­ported back to the space of live mu­sic again. Hear­ing the roar­ing echoes of au­di­ence ap­plause tucked be­tween Brian Set­zer’s crisp howls and slick strum­ming, the pluck­ing of Lee Rocker’s up­right bass and the rat-a-tat-tat of Slim Jim Phan­tom on the drums is one of the most raw and vis­ceral lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ences to be had in 2020.

“We re­ally wanted to cap­ture this tour,” says front­man Set­zer of the event that was years in the mak­ing. The trio who fa­mously and stylishly put rock­a­billy back on the charts in the ’80s with zingers like “Stray Cat Strut” and have had a tu­mul­tuous run of stop-and-starts ever since had not played to­gether in at least a decade. But as the band’s 40th an­niver­sary ap­proached in 2019, Set­zer and “the boys,” as he af­fec­tion­ately refers to them, de­cided to give it an­other go with a sur­prise Amer­i­can-Euro­pean tour and a brand-new al­bum, ap­pro­pri­ately called “40,” their first LP in 26 years.

“Peo­ple some­times think it’s some great thought-out process and hon­estly it started with base­ball,” says Set­zer, laugh­ing, when dis­cussing how the re­union took shape. “Me and Slim Jim love base­ball and we were talk­ing to each other about the stand­ings, and Slim Jim came right out and said, ‘You know we have an an­niver­sary com­ing up, we have to com­mem­o­rate this.’ And it snow­balled from there. First it started with putting to­gether the gigs and then we fig­ured we needed some new songs to play.”

The red-hot clas­sics are all in­cluded on the 23-song col­lec­tion — “Rock This Town,” “Run­away Boys,” “Rum­ble in Brighton” — but there’s also a se­lec­tion of fresh ma­te­rial with tracks like “Cat Fight (Over a Dog Like Me)” that are so tight and trade­mark Stray Cats, it feels like they never skipped a beat.

“It’s a funny thing what hap­pened. It was right in front of me,” says Set­zer about find­ing the chem­istry with Slim Jim and Lee again so many years af­ter form­ing in the

Long Is­land neigh­bor­hood of Mas­s­ape­qua in ’79. It was there that they united over a love of early Amer­i­can rock ’n’ roll like the Sun Records le­gends and found an early fol­low­ing play­ing hal­lowed halls like CBGB.

Though he’s spent the off years cul­ti­vat­ing other projects like his swing re­vival group The Brian Set­zer Or­ches­tra, he wasn’t ex­pect­ing the types of crowds that came out for The Stray Cats.

“I didn’t ex­pect the num­bers, I re­ally didn’t, or that we had so many songs that peo­ple knew and would sing along to,” he ad­mits, at one point on the al­bum ad­mit­ting to the crowd the band shouldn’t “have waited so long” to get back to­gether.

The gui­tar afi­cionado, who re­cently launched a shop with Chicago-based in­stru­ment resale site Re­verb to give fans the chance to buy his per­sonal col­lec­tion, has a sig­na­ture line with Gretsch Gui­tars and calls his most prized pos­ses­sion a ’56 Gretsch White Pen­guin. “It’s a real plum,” Set­zer says.

That retro swag­ger has per­me­ated all as­pects of Set­zer’s life and drew him to mu­sic in the first place. Hav­ing long been hailed as some­one who has brought swing and rock­a­billy back to the mod­ern con­scious­ness, he says what drew him to the styles was that “it’s based on real mu­sic. … Rock­a­billy was this mix­ture of blues and coun­try. It came from Chicago guys like Muddy Wa­ters, Howlin’ Wolf and also the coun­try guys like Hank Wil­liams and Ge­orge Jones. When they got back from World War II, they had all this free time and they were hear­ing all this stuff on the ra­dio, hear­ing Chicago blues, coun­try, even jazz. And that in­spired them to ac­tu­ally come up with this new sound. I don’t even know if they re­al­ized they were do­ing it.”

Set­zer, who’s re­cov­ered from the tin­ni­tus that side­lined his Christ­mas tour late last year and has been rid­ing out the pan­demic by writ­ing more ma­te­rial and rid­ing his mo­tor­cy­cles, says he’s anx­ious to get Stray Cats shows go­ing again and re­vive that raw sound on the live al­bum in-per­son.

“I miss live mu­sic just as much as the fans,” he says. “I miss the in­ter­ac­tion both with the au­di­ence and with Jim and Lee. That’s what it’s all about for me. I play mu­sic, that’s what I was put here to do.”

RUSS HARRINGTON

The Stray Cats — Brian Set­zer (from left), Slim Jim Phan­tom and Lee Rocker — last year re­leased “40,” their first al­bum in 26 years.

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