Setzer's show gives blast of Christmas past

'50's-tinged rocker brings holiday show to 9:30 Club

Music: in concert, CDs

November 27, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

For the most part, Brian Setzer lives in the past. Well into the new millennium, the singer-musician still sports a heavily styled pompadour and long sideburns a la Elvis.

His enunciation crisp, his voice booming like that of a sport broadcaster, Setzer says, "I'm a '50s guy, man. I wear my hair greased like that every day. I can go to the 7-Eleven and get away with it."

His look matches his signature sound: a high-octane blend of rockabilly, country and electric blues interspersed with blazing, jazzy horns. The Grammy-winning artist, who will play the 9:30 Club tomorrow night, has been on the road for months now with his elaborate Christmas show. The program features selections from Setzer's acclaimed holiday album, Boogie Woogie Christmas, released last year. And if it's a Setzer concert, you can bet that the presentation, like the music, will be colorful and splashy.

"I've got dancing girls," says the artist, 44, who's calling from his Palm Springs, Calif., home. "Everyone is dressed in red and green and leopard. Yeah, it's loud and seems to work. It's just a great Christmas party, really."

Aside from performing blown-up holiday tunes with his 17-piece band, Setzer has been promoting the just-released Nitro Burnin' Funny Daddy, his eighth album.

The guitarist says the title "came from one of the guys in the band. It was before a show, and he looked out in the audience and said, 'Man, there are some nitro burnin' funny daddies out there.' And I said, 'What is that?' And he said, 'It's guys like you, greaser cats.' "

The 13-cut set is a sharper reflection of Setzer's musical influences, which include Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Muddy Waters and Chet Atkins. As usual, the mood throughout is fun, charged, unrelenting and decidedly retro. But this time around, the horns are brought down a notch or two; the charts are a little leaner. Doo-wop, bluegrass, '50s-style R&B, country -- the different styles swell, converge and merge on Nitro Burnin'. But all of it sprouts from one source.

"Everything came from the blues," Setzer says. "It's the granddaddy. The album was more a bluesy record this time. Those bluesy chords hold it all together. It's natural for me to mix all those sounds, you know: rockabilly, jazz, whatever. It all came down from the blues. Without it, you'll have just a bland bowl of soup."

A Palm Springs resident for 10 years, Setzer was born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., where he grew up digging on the blues, R&B and Top 40. If you were around in the early '80s, you may remember his old band, the Stray Cats. During the brief rockabilly revival, the group scored three monster hits in '81: "Runaway Boys," "Rock This Town," and "Stray Cat Strut." The trio formed on Long Island in '79 but found success first in England before hitting gold and platinum in the United States.

It was during his stint with the Stray Cats that Setzer got the idea to do the big-band rock he does today.

"We had out 'Rock This Town' at the time," Setzer remembers, "and we were performing on the Johnny Carson show. There was Doc Severinsen and the band, and we had the opportunity to do the song with the big band. It's more complex, writing arrangements for more pieces, but I love the challenge."

Away from the road, Setzer indulges his love for all things classic. Lately, he's been spinning Count Basie 78s on his old Magnavox stereo. "The sound is so warm," he says. "There was a whole different energy then."

With his many neon-colored trips into pop's past, Setzer does a fine job of bringing it back.

The "Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza" is tomorrow night at the 9:30 Club (815 V St. N.W., Washington). For information or to buy tickets, go to

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