I usually gauge how close it’s getting to Christmas by the weather getting colder, but it’s still almost 80 degrees just two weeks before Santa Claus doesn’t get me a pony for the umpteenth time. So this year I’m using THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA Christmas Rocks! Tour as my guide to the big day. I’ve seen the show a few times before and he can make you feel all Christmassy even when old St. Nick is tooling around in flip flops and Bermuda shorts.
This is the 12th annual show and Brian always adds something to improve it, so I wondered what it would be as I looked at the stage decorated with four Christmas trees, Santa Claus and a Snowman at the corners and a soft, blue light bathing the stage of the Allen Event Center. The 18-piece orchestra filed out in their green jackets as “A Holly, Jolly Christmas” played over the loudspeakers. The two backup singers, Leslie and Julie the Vixen Sisters, came out shaking what they had in their Santa suits.
Brian Setzer then came out with no introduction, wearing a silver lame suit and strumming a rockabilly version of BRENDA LEE‘s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” on guitar. That led into “This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof,” a guitar-jam laden song that was so upbeat it made his semi-pompadour jiggle. The orchestra moved in unison like an old black and white movie. The crowd got even louder for “Stray Cat Strut,” his biggest song from THE STRAY CATS. Only one thing could make this song better and we got it: a rocking bass fiddle solo by Johnny Hutton.
Brian changed to a Grinch green guitar for “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” a BETTE MIDLER-style song that included guitar and sax solos, plus this year’s new addition, a terrific piano solo.
Not to be outdone, it also included a trumpet and a trombone solo.The Vixens then came up front for “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” which utilized both their vocal talents and physical attributes.
A full orchestra version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” didn’t sound much like the late, great GENE AUTRY, but with the strong guitar work of Setzer and the piano, drum and bass fiddle spotlights, it was a highlight of the evening. The orchestra continued showing off their talents with an instrumental version of “Sleep Walk.”
The Vixens again got everyone’s full attention when they moved to the front of the stage and started a traditional beginning of “Angels We Have Heard On High,” which quickly escalated into a funky version that fit their style and look. They stayed in the spotlight for the next song, “Let’s Shake,” which had them shaking to a JERRY LEE LEWIS-type piano rag, followed by a sax solo that once again rocked.
“Jump Jive An’ Wail” had an old USO feel to it as the orchestra left the stage and the mainstays, Brian, the Vixen Sisters, pianist, drummer and bass player, lined up across the front of the stage.
Following this was an acapella version of “Jingle Bell Rock” that showed off their vocal talents. I got a laugh from the English woman sitting beside me, and a dirty look from her husband, as they began a rousing rockabilly version of “Great Balls Of Fire,” when I told them that was what we called the VD Clinic back home. The highlight was when the bass player rode his fiddle like a horse across the stage. He continued riding it, then played it like a regular guitar, and stood on top of it as Setzer stood on top of the drums and they rocked it big time.
The orchestra came back for “Rockabilly Rudolph” and they were ready to have some fun. They were having a ball as Brian asked, “You cats ready to rock this town?” Jamming to THE STRAY CATS “Rock This Town” was pure joy as they didn’t want to stop. Being the final song of the set, everyone got extended solos and the orchestra moved in unison like THE PIPS without GLADYS KNIGHT.
It was an excellent ending and the crowd would have been happy if the concert had ended on that note.
The flashlights on the cell phones came out asking for an encore and we didn’t have to wait long. They came back out to play “Yabba Dabba Yuletide,” one of the very few Flintstone Christmas songs. They followed that with a swinging version of “The Nutcracker Suite,” with changing tempos and solos by many of the orchestra members. That led into “Jingle Bells” with a strong rock and roll beat that had the crowd moving. A Dancing Santa then came out to lead the charge as snow blew out from the top of the stage. Jamming to “Jingle Bells” and a Dancing Santa was the perfect way to end a Christmas concert.
Several mainstays are in his orchestra and they’ve learned over the twelve-year existence to play off each other with great skill and timing. This year’s notable addition is a piano player who nails the rockabilly, the rock and roll and the boogie woogie. The Vixen Sisters didn’t have as much to do this year, but it’s always a treat to hear and see them.
Brian Setzer is extremely underrated as a guitarist as most people only realize how well he plays when they see him live. He employs a combination of all genres of rock, jazz and flamenco and plays all of them equally well. I can’t wait to see THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA Christmas Rocks! Tour again next year!
LIVE WORDS: DAVID SIMERS
LIVE PHOTOS: GUZPIX