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Concert review: Phoenix crowd gives the Brian Setzer Orchestra holiday cheers

For anyone that might reach that point of “bah humbug” Christmas burn out due to the stress of shopping, decorating, waiting in line for Santa and anything else that might not make this joyous season so joyous, there is the perfect antidote. Spend an hour and forty five minutes with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. As the near sold out crowd at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix found out on Tuesday night, December 17, 2013, Setzer and his orchestra can cure any Christmas blues with some holiday swing and rock.

Brian Setzer’s virtuoso guitar playing talent became well known due to his involvement in the 1980’s rockabilly trio, The Stray Cats. Although at times he has pared three down to one with some solo work, he has also upped the numbers with his current lineup. Tuesday night’s orchestra crammed a horn section of thirteen, plus drummer Tony Pia, upright bass player Johnny Hatton and singers Julie Reiten and Leslie Spencer (the “Vixens”) onto the tight, circular Celebrity Theatre stage.

If you think advertising Christmas before Halloween is just too much, the tables were turned as the Brian Setzer Orchestra opened the night with “The Munster’s Theme,” evoking memories of 1313 Mockingbird Lane and a family of monsters rather than yuletide cheer. But everything that a night billed as “Christmas Rocks,” was lived up to with “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus.” The horn section was standing and blasting, Setzer blazed on one of his many guitar improvises of the night and the tone was set.

The evening’s songs nicely alternated among traditional Christmas music done with a big band swing sound (“Sleigh Ride,” “Joy to the World”), original numbers, (“This Cat’s On a Hot Tin Roof,”) less traditional Christmas tunes (“Boogie Woogie Santa Claus”) and some vintage Stray Cats (“(She’s) Sexy + 17,” “Stray Cat Strut”). With this selection the band answered the question, what’s the difference between rockabilly and big band swing? About thirteen horns.

“Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” allowed several members of the brass section to shine with some solo work. “The song about the cat,” which was, as Setzer told the audience, what Michael Jackson had dubbed “Stray Cat Strut” when the two met at the Grammy awards, morphed into “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” The Grinch bounded up on stage and stole some sheet music before his exit.

But it would be impossible to be a Grinch in the audience. The Grammy award winning “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” got the fairly subdued audience to be as excited as those already dancing next to the stage. As he had all night, Setzer delivered another wicked solo. Great guitarists have a great moment in every song. Setzer had them all night long.

After a beautiful instrumental version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” most of the orchestra left the stage leaving only Hatton and Pia onstage with Setzer. Despite now being only three members, the trio brought a fullness to the rockabilly “Nervous Breakdown.”

Setzer channeled his inner Johnny Cash for “Ring of Fire.” His voice, which had been solid all night, went successfully into a deeper range as he was joined onstage by the Vixens and three members of the trumpet section who provided the song’s mariachi horns. The full audience was finally convinced it was time to stand up to clap and sing along.

The frenzied “Fishnet Stockings,” a song from the Stray Cats’ inaugural album, found Pia on top of his bass drum and Hatton on top of his no longer standing upright, bass guitar. The antics and musicianship brought a huge ovation from the crowd.

With Setzer sporting a guitar that “looks like a ’59 Cadillac,” the regular portion of the show ended with “Brand New Cadillac.” The full orchestra returned mid-song, having traded in their black suit jackets for leopard coats. Once again, the jump from rockabilly to swing was seamless and natural.

If your idea of Christmas pageantry includes “The Nutcracker,” then the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s version of “The Nutcracker Suite,” sated your need. It was jazzy in parts, quiet when needed and once again featured the great guitar work of Setzer.

The standing ovation “The Nutcracker Suite” received allowed people to remain on their feet for the popular Stray Cat’s rocker, “Rock This Town.” People sang, heads bopped and those that might have taken a break from dancing by the front of the stage were back at it in full force.

Although the arrival of Santa is always anticipated, it also signals the end of Christmas. So it was with the show as Ole St. Nick came on stage, throwing candy to the audience as Setzer led everyone in “Jingle Bells.” The fake snow fell (it was 82 degrees in Phoenix on Tuesday), everyone sang and sadly, the night ended.

But the aftermath will be that the next day, the parking space at the mall will seem a bit closer, screaming kids will be less annoying and you’ll finally figure out that perfect gift you’ve been trying to think of (possibly the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s “Christmas Comes Alive !” CD?). You can thank a night out with the Brian Setzer Orchestra for recharging your Christmas batteries.

Set list: The Munsters Theme | Dig That Crazy Santa Claus | Sleigh Ride | This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof | Boogie Woogie Santa Claus | (She’s) Sexy + 17 | Joy To The World | Stray Cat Strut/You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch | Sleepwalk | Angels We Have Heard On High | Jump, Jive an’ Wail |O Little Town of Bethlehem | Nervous Breakdown | Ring of Fire | Jingle Bell Rock | Fishnet Stocking | Brand New Cadillac (with Theme from Peter Gunn)| Flintstones’ Holiday Song | The Nutcracker Suite | Rock This Town | Jingle Bells


Article by: Ted Hansen Mesa Classic Rock Music Examiner