Ever since the 1980s heyday of the Stray Cats, guitarist-vocalist Brian Setzer has bounced happily between two revivals: rockin’ big band swing (with the Brian Setzer Orchestra) and the 1950s rockabilly sound that put the Stray Cats on the charts 30 years after most people assumed the style had become a museum piece.
Setzer’s new small-group album Rockabilly Riot! All Original is a celebration of guitar fireworks and playful creativity. The dance-rocker “Let’s Shake,” the ballad “The Girl with the Blues in Her Eyes,” and the superb opening number “Blue Lights Big City” could be lost Elvis classics.
The jazzy “Lemme Slide” calls to mind the pop pizzazz of Louis Armstrong. “Cock-a-doodle-Don’t,” “Calamity Jane,” and the time-warping “I Should Have Had a V8” are pure comic fun.
There’s a splash of everything from Gene Vincent to Jason and the Scorchers here, knit together by Setzer’s lightning-fast fingers and a killer backing band consisting of Mark Winchester (bass), Kevin McKendree (piano) and Noah Levy (drums).
“When I was 17, I got this here guitar
We’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s gotten me this far
It’s made a lot of money, it’s been around the world
It’s been with me longer than any other girl.”
That guitar sounds like a force of nature in “Rockabilly Blues,” “Cock-a-doodle-Don’t” and even a trifle like “Stiletto Cool.” Now and again Setzer gets so excited he leaves the scales of a song entirely, like some kind of wild thing is possessing him. It wouldn’t be rockabilly to the nth degree without a touch of inspired chaos.
The same goes for songwriting. “Once you get that idea of what you wanna write, you get excited about it,” Setzer told Esquire.com. “And once you move in that direction they do come hot and heavy. It really is a gift from somewhere. The songbird comes.”
“When the next big thing has come and gone,” he sings, “Just remember you can always put on your vinyl records.” I write this while listening to the album via my iPhone piped through the car speakers in my Honda Fit – an excellent stereo, but about as far as you can get from a V8. But the message comes through loud and clear. Rockabilly Riot! is a road-trip romp from start to finish.