When it comes to the Holiday season and Holiday music, THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA is one of the few modern acts to become firmly solidified with both. The 18-piece big band fronted by the STRAY CATS’ guitarslinger has been rockin’ and swingin’ for nearly a quarter-century on its own, but its association with the festive season happened purely by chance – brought about by filmmaker Brian Levant inviting Setzer to pen some tracks for his 1996 movie, JINGLE ALL THE WAY (coincidentally, my favorite Holiday film of all-time). The full story of how The BSO’s “Christmas concept” evolved was eloquently detailed by Dave Kaplan in the liner notes for 2010’s CHRISTMAS COMES ALIVE! album, but that story has continued. With a new record called ROCKIN’ RUDOLPH out now on Surfdog Records, The BSO is back on the road for their 12th Annual Christmas Rocks! Tour – a 31-City Christmas extravaganza to close out 2015…
On a wet Tuesday night in Waukegan, Illinois, my wife and I entered the beautiful Genesee Theatre (a theater that I have some history with) amid a cross-generational crowd of families, from old-school rockabillies, to grandparents, to some new ears – little kids getting to see Brian Setzer for the very first time. Greeted by a sign notifying attendees that Setzer had “approved standing and dancing” during the night’s performance, the festive atmosphere was complemented by the uncommonly friendly, very laid-back and warm staff of the Genesee – a quality often missing from shows in bigger cities – including Chicago and Milwaukee, the two major cities that Waukegan sits between.
Kicked-off by the “one-man lightning storm” of San Diego’s LOW VOLTS delivering a dirty, blues-driven blast of fuzz-filled slide guitar action (not immune to the Xmas spirit, Mr. Volts breaking out a few seasonal jams of his own), the audience was more than primed for the main event, with The BSO arriving to a barrage of enthusiastic revellers.
Setzer was, as always, a sight to behold for those who appreciate musicianship – one of the greatest living guitarists fully utilizing every fret of his Gretsch Hollow Body to pull off things that most guitarists never will. Fully acknowledging that it’s “a bit early” for some when it comes to Holiday music, The BSO continues to refine the set list to include some of Setzer’s biggest hits and fan favorites, along with recent fare from projects both Orchestral and not. The big ones like “Jump, Jive and Wail,” “Fishnet Stockings” and “Rock this Town” are all there, with newer numbers like “Let’s Shake” (from 2014’s ROCKABILLY RIOT – ALL ORIGINAL), “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and THE FLINTSTONES-inspired “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide” (both from ROCKIN’ RUDOLPH) making their way into the mix.
Throughout the night, the backdrops rotated to show off the looks of each record in The BSO’s Christmas discography, while the mid-set break allowed the big band to relax for a few as Brian took things back to the roots of it all – guitar, upright bass, drums and piano – performing an enthusiastic rockabilly set that included the addition of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” (which someone already put on YouTube).
For many families, THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA’s Annual Christmas Rocks! Tour is as big a tradition as The Nutcracker or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular – and for good reason. This music is timeless, and seeing it live is a beautiful thing. Plus, who doesn’t want to see it snow inside a theater? It’s magical, and The BSO makes it happen every night!
Check out BrianSetzer.com for tour dates and ticket information.