Setzer hasn’t strayed from his retro roots
Special to The Commercial Appeal
With his pomaded hairdo and ubiquitous tattoos, Brian Setzer may seem like an unlikely harbinger of holiday good cheer, but the fact is that in recent years he has come to dominate the soundtrack of the season like no artist since Perry Como.
Setzer, who brings his big band Christmas show to the Horseshoe Casino tonight, first came to popular attention in the early ’80s as the frontman for the short-lived but wildly popular rockabilly trio the Stray Cats. But since 1990 he’s led a very different — if still stubbornly retro — sort of group.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra is a 17-piece rock and roll orchestra that takes its inspiration, most prominently, from Arkansas jump blues master Louis Jordan and Louis Prima, whose “Jump Jive an’ Wail,” provided the group with their only hit to date. (The Setzer Orchestra version was memorably used in a Gap commercial.)
The larger group has inspired Setzer to broaden his sonic palette beyond the thump and twang of rockabilly. Besides the usual swing, surf, and boogie woogie, the group has tackled classical (2007’s Wolfgang’s Big Night Out) and on Setzer’s latest record, the dark and moody sounds of classic film noir.
Released in October, Songs From Lonely Avenue is Setzer’s second collaboration with legendary Hollywood composer and arranger Frank Comstock, best known for his work on “Dragnet” and “Adam 12.” The album itself, Setzer says, is a soundtrack to a nonexistent ’50s crime drama.
“I’d love to give the album to Quentin Tarantino and go, ‘Can you write a film around this?’ ” Setzer recently told Star-Tribune in his current hometown of Minneapolis, Minn.
Earlier this month, the first single from Lonely Avenue , “Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin,’ ” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock Instrumental category. It’s Setzer’s 10th nomination. He has won three of the awards.
Setzer never consciously set out to become a Yuletide rocker. In 1996 he was asked to contribute to the Arnold Schwarzenegger Christmas movie “Jingle All the Way.” Realizing there was no rock version of “Jingle Bells,” he arranged one himself. A Los Angeles radio station began playing it, and the requests for more came pouring in.
Setzer and his orchestra have since made two holiday albums, 2002’s Boogie Woogie Christmas and 2005’s Dig That Crazy Christmas, which both mix rocked-up covers of old favorites with their own ’50s-inspired compositions like “Santa Drives a Hot Rod.” In October, coinciding with the release of Lonely Avenue , Setzer’s Surfdog Records released Christmas Rocks! The Best of Collection, comprised of choice tracks from the two albums, and The Ultimate Christmas Collection, which includes Christmas Rocks! plus a concert DVD containing 25 additional performances.
Brian Setzer, former frontman for the Stray Cats, heads up a cool Yule with his 17-piece rock and roll orchestra.