Brian Setzer’s mission in December is pretty clear: spread some holiday cheer with guitar a-blazing. It’s something he’s made into a career as leader of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the once-and-probably-future Stray Cat’s venture into swing music and now a perennial on the holiday tour circuit.
“What I’ve learned after doing this for 13 years is that you can be the biggest Grinch around, but every year, when the holidays come around, everyone gets mushy,” Setzer said with a laugh during a recent interview with the Orange County Register. “There’s always one in every crowd. It’s like when big bands play baseball stadiums and they focus on that one guy like, ‘Ah, I have to win him over! I have to get him!’”
Setzer and his crew will bring their cheerful show to Reno again as the Orchestra makes a stop on Dec. 23 at Grand Sierra Resort. Even though there are plenty of Christmas favorites as part of Setzer’s set, there are also the songs he’s known for from his entire career.
“My first rule of playing music, in general, is that if it’s not fun, I’m not doing it and I’ve always been able to maintain that,” Setzer told the OC Register when asked if he’s bored of doing Christmas tours. “It’s a good time and I’ve changed it up this year with a new band configuration, we got new outfits for everybody and we’ve completely changed up the set list. I keep doing it because I really, really do enjoy it.”
Strutting to success
Enjoyment and exuberance has been a hallmark of Setzer’s career, which he had to go to another country to jump start. Born in upstate New York, he was in local punk or rockabilly groups such as the Bloodless Pharaohs and The Tomcats before forming the Stray Cats in 1979.
The band decided to move to London in 1980 and it was a good call: they earned a record deal there and started releasing some of the songs that eventually made them famous. Once they earned a deal in America, the Stray Cats took off in the early MTV era. The band’s best known songs include “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut” and “She’s Sexy and 17,” all top 10 hits from 1981 to 1983.
Setzer told the Bakersfield Californian in a recent interview that he and the band did not hedge their bets when they went to England.
“It was Huckleberry Finn on the raft,” Setzer said. “I had fell in love with (rockabilly), and if there was anything around, anybody else doing it, I really wasn’t aware of it. I think maybe I heard Robert Gordon and went, ‘Oh wow! There’s somebody out there that likes this music,’ but it was really few and far between. And I saw a picture of a rockabilly guy on the cover of the British New Musical Express, and I thought, ‘Oh my God. It exists somewhere, and that somewhere is in the UK. That’s where we have to go.’ It was that kind of simple.
“Probably, if we thought about it too much, we wouldn’t have gone, because the odds were so stacked against being successful.”
All styles served
It was just a year after their second album, in 1983, when the Stray Cats broke up, although they’ve since been together for several reunion tours. Setzer told the OC Register that he and his band mates are talking about playing together again soon. Next year marks the 35th anniversary of their U.S. debut, “Built for Speed.”
“I don’t know when we’ll do it, but hopefully before I lose my pompadour,” Setzer said, adding that he does miss performing with the band. “I mean let’s face it, we’re not kids anymore. We’re getting older and when we talk about the stuff that we did and that feeling we had of taking over the world, as silly as that sounds now, it really takes us back and now I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, we’re still here and we can play, so let’s play.’”
After that first end of the Stray Cats, Setzer’s late-1980s highlights include a well-received roots-rock solo debut called “The Knife Feels Like Justice” and a film role as rock pioneer Eddie Cochran in “La Bamba.”
From the ’90s onward, Setzer divided time between the orchestra – which was well ahead of the late-’90s swing revival – and solo albums and tours under his own name, mostly playing early rock and jazz styles. But it’s the orchestra that’s been the most enduring, and not just for its regular holiday tours. He also earned a top 10 placement for the group’s third record, 1998’s “Dirty Boogie,” which had a hit on radio and MTV with a cover of Louis Prima’s “Jump Jive and Wail.”
Setzer explained his motivation to go with different styles throughout his career during his interview with the Californian.
“Music has to grab you, it really does, and there’s something primal about when I hear that rockabilly sound,” Setzer said. “Other people get it with the blues; they can’t describe it. It’s something deep down.”
“The same when I started the big band: I hoped that I somehow made this modern and I think that I have somehow. I think maybe that’s why I’m still around, is that I brought something new to the party; I just didn’t remake it.”
The orchestra has released albums that included rock-infused versions of famous classical pieces (wittily called “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out”) and an album called “Songs From Lonely Avenue” that featured all songs written by Setzer. Then, of course, there are the orchestra’s three Christmas albums: “Boogie Woogie Christmas” in 2002, “Dig That Crazy Christmas” in 2005 and “Rockin’ Rudolph” in 2015.
Setzer told the Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent in a recent interview that the future is bright for more Christmas albums and tunes to try out with the orchestra.
“On the last record, I thought there’s got to be an end to these Christmas songs,” he said. “There can’t be many left and then we actually looked at how many there were and there’s a ton of them.”