Forget that bit about the one-horse open sleigh. When rockabilly hero Brian Setzer sings “Jingle Bells,” the words become, “Oh what fun is it to ride in a ’57 Chevrolet.” This reworking of one of the world’s best-known Christmas lyrics embodies the mistletoe-meets-Maddox Brothers spirit behind the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s annual Christmas show, which has been packing theaters nationwide each holiday season for 12 years and counting.
Featuring hot-rodded holiday tunes souped up with spanked upright bass lines à la rockabilly/rock forefather Fred Maddox; intricate saxophone, trumpet, and trombone arrangements delivered by a 13-piece horn section; and epic guitar breaks courtesy of Setzer, this concert puts you smack in the middle of that unlikely intersection where Christmas carols, revved-up rockabilly riffs, big band swing, and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite all collide.
At the Orchestra’s performance at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles Friday night, Setzer, naturally, handled lead vocal duties (as he has since he burst into the national spotlight in the early ’80s while fronting the Stray Cats), singing everything from Christmas classics such as “Here Comes Santa Clause” and “Jingle Bell Rock” to Stray Cats staples such as “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.” That being said, the biggest voice on stage Friday was whichever Gretsch 6120 or 6120 Hot Rod Brian Setzer signature model happened to be in Setzer’s hands at any given moment.
Plugged into a old Roland Space echo that he primarily uses for a quick slap-back delay (see rig photo) running into an overdriven Fender “piggyback” Bassman, Setzer delivered gritty, chime-y, and dimensional hollowbody tones on every song. From his hypnotic volume swells on “Sleepwalk” to his crisp chord-melody theme on “Angels We Have Heard on High” to his lyrical riffs on his Orchestra’s elaborate Nutcracker Suite arrangement (an arrangement elaborate enough that Setzer still needs several pages of sheet music to get through it) to the unbridled jump-blues mayhem of his solo on “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” Setzer’s parts were huge enough in scope and pleasing enough in timbre to conceivably make solidbody players question their guitar choices.
Setzer, however, wasn’t the only talented instrumentalist on the stage. Kevin McKendree’s percussive piano solos cut through the din of the band surprisingly well, and tenor sax man Tim Messina enjoyed some limelight when Setzer pulled him up to front of the stage to engage in a guitar/sax soloing duel.
Setzer had many great moments during the set on Friday, but his literal high point came when, on “Fishnet Stockings,” he climbed atop bassist Johnny Hatton’s silver-finished upright and, guitar in hand, continued rocking out for the crowd.
Setzer knows a secret: Almost no one—not your grandpa, not your friends, not your kids—can help but get swept away by the all-consuming tsunami of harmony and groove that rolls off the stage when a great big band is playing. The music is that irresistible. The first guitarist ever to lead a bona fide big band, Setzer has created an ensemble that takes his two favorite genres of music to the next level—his Orchestra is the Earth, Wind & fire of rockabilly, the Led Zeppelin of jump swing. And though there are plenty of guitar cognoscenti who have yet to realize it, Setzer’s annual Christmas extravaganza just happens to be one of the best guitar shows around.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s holiday tour continues through December. See below for dates/upcoming concerts.
Thanks to Brian Setzer’s guitar tech, Tyler Sweet, for the rig, guitar rack, and sheet music photos used in this story.
Brian Setzer Orchestra Holiday Tour
December 22, Fox Theater - Bakersfield, CA
December 23, Wells Fargo Center for the Arts - Santa Rosa, CA
December 24, Warfield Theater - San Francisco, CA
December 26, Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox - Spokane, WA
December 27, Benaroya Concert Hall - Seattle, WA
December 29, Grey Eagle Resort and Casino - Calgary, AB