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A little Se(l)tzer with my eggnog, please!

Call me an ol’ Humbug, but I’m generally allergic to most Christmas music while some of it is beautiful, a lot of it is overly sentimental in that syrupy TV movie of the week way. Perhaps Brian Setzer understands that many feel similar, turning the attention of his big band to some Xmas classics, all the while amping up the Hep Factor. For those unfamiliar with the lad’s resume, Brian Setzer is best known as the guitarist/singer of the Stray Cats, a rockablilly revivalist trio that, while dissed by some purists as being a pretty-boy caricature of the Real Thing, had Top 30 chart successes. But though he was a devout rock & roller, he never lost his zeal for big band swing (as a young fellow, he’d go see the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra at clubs in NYC’s Village), so in the 90s Setzer started his own big band, one where he could pursue a fusion of big band swing, jump blues, rockabilly and rock & roll. Which brings us, Dear Reader, to Chicago’s House of Blues, to where Setzer brought his Orchestra for a Christmas Show.

(Though it sounds incongruous and to some blasphemous, there have been historical happenstances where the spheres of [mostly early] rock & roll and big bands have intersected: Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, where blues-charged swing met juke joint jump; Freddie Slack’s Orchestra [which featured both Ella Mae Morse and T-Bone Walker], where boogie-woogie and big band swing co-mingled and strengthened each other; Lionel Hampton’s big band when it featured Dinah Washington; Chuck Berry counts Artie Shaw as a major influence; Benny Golson and Benny Carter arranged for singers Eric Burdon, Mama Cass Elliot, Maria Muldaur and Jackie Wilson; big band arranger/composer Neal Hefti wrote the "Batman Theme.")

Yeah, the place was packed, all right the sizable hall was sold out, in fact. Setzer had a fully-stocked big band: 5 saxes, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, acoustic bass, drums, two Xmas Vixens on background vocals and the leader’s guitar and vocals. When it comes to his Orchestra’s sound, Setzer’s no dilettante: this was a tight, shiny, swingin’ machine. He learned his lessons well: the BSO drew upon the jumpin’ swing of Count Basie, the showmanship of Glenn Miller and Jimmie Lunceford and the swaggering in-your-face brassiness of Billy May and Dec Severinsen, with touches of Ellington’s creamy voicings for horns. While I thought Setzer’s past guitar work was good-OK in his rockin’ contexts, he positively soared here while not a jazz player per se, his solos were marked by a sophistication inspired by both Charlie Christian (an influence on Setzer) and Jeff Beck. The program consisted of Seasonal Classics like "Jingle Bells" and Winter Wonderland," pumped-up by brassy swing and kind-hearted, rockin’ audacity, making room for some hepcat Xmas tunes like "Blue Christmas" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." The band engaged in some Glenn Miller-like "choreography," where the trumpet section pointed the horns skyward-right while the ‘bones swung skyward-left. But don’t get the idea that the BSO were coasting on giving a show while skimping on the music there were surprises to be had. The Xmas Vixens went from back-up to front-and-center for a spunky, charming version of the Everly Brothers’ "Bye-Bye Love" that sounded like the Andrews Sisters fronting the Alan Freed Orchestra later, there was a dandy version of the surf-music classic "Pipeline" scored for guitar and 4 trombones. In the middle of their set, the reeds and brass took a powder and it was a brisk walk down memory lane as the trio of Setzer, bass & drums revisited the old Stray Cat hits. The BSO ended things on a high note with a jazzy take on the classical chestnut "The Nutcracker Suite," with a dazzling, intricate (not to mention swinging) arrangement based on the version by Les Brown’s Orchestra in the 50s. Throughout the evening, the BSO delivered on their promise of their particular brand of fusion big-time a good time seemed to be had by All. {Well, almost all: there were these noisy, obnoxious yuppie-types near me being loud & stupid throughout the show, not to mention their being mean to a waitress.}

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Brian Setzer Orchestra
  • Concert Date: 12/6/2003
  • Subtitle: Brian Setzer Orchestra makes Holiday Cheer SWING, baby!
  • Venue: House of Blues
  • City State Country: Chicago, IL
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