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Live review: Brian Setzer Orchestra at the Gibson Amphitheatre

December 20, 2009 |  5:04 pm

The former Stray Cats leader, now in his seventh year of touring with an annual big-band holiday show, 'Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza,' finally gets things rolling after a rocky start.


"This next one used to play a lot on MTV," Brian Setzer announced from the stage of the Gibson Amphitheatre on Friday night. "Back when they used to play music on MTV." The song was "Stray Cat Strut," by Setzer's old neo-rockabilly outfit the Stray Cats, and the singer-guitarist wasn't overselling its prominence during the music-video network's younger years: Along with Devo, the Buggles and Duran Duran, the Stray Cats found a natural berth at MTV, which showcased the group's visual flair in a way that radio simply couldn't. As much as you listened to Setzer and his bandmates, you watched them too, admiring their wide-collared suits and precarious hairdos.

Nearly three decades later, the Stray Cats -- like Lou Bega, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones after them -- no longer have much purchase on the pop mainstream. Yet Setzer still commands a loyal audience, thanks in large part to his annual big-band holiday show, optimistically dubbed the "Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza" and now in its seventh year of touring business. Stray Cats fans crowded the Gibson on Friday for the first of two concerts there, but so did grandmothers and grandchildren, many of whom would probably be surprised to learn that music videos once had a home beyond YouTube.

As in years past, Setzer's 90-minute set interspersed well-worn seasonal material with Stray Cats tunes and songs he's crafted with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, his durable 17-piece backing band. Showbiz cynicism had no place in the proceedings, which presented Christmas less as a religious or retail experience than as an annual opportunity for specialized wardrobe and jargon. Setzer isn't a man who needs an excuse to say things like, "Dig that crazy Santa Claus," but you could tell he was happy to have one.

Not everything sounded as joyous on Friday as it might have: Though he bounded onstage with the energy required to pull off his outfit (red knee-length topcoat over leather pants tucked into leather boots), Setzer seemed to operate at a lower-than-usual wattage for the first half-hour or so -- the aftereffect, perhaps, of a medical issue that caused him to cut short a show in Albuquerque last week. "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," for instance, never quite boogied all its blues away.

Yet by the time he led his trombone section in a cute oom-pah version of the Ventures' "Pipeline," Setzer had found his footing. He peppered "Angels We Have Heard on High" with tasty jazz chords and sang a lovely rendition of "Lonely Avenue," the title track from his new studio disc. Near the end of the concert he gave the Orchestra a break and performed a stripped-down mini-set with his drummer and bassist; they injected "Run Rudolph Run" and "Jingle Bell Rock" with a jolt of early-rock electricity.

For an encore the ensemble raced through a condensed version of the Nutcracker Suite, honoring the eclectic movements of Tchaikovsky's score with a series of stylistic quick changes: lush '30s-style swing into double-time parade-band march into sultry Latin jazz. The music was pleased with itself, but Setzer's fans were pleased with it too -- and not because MTV had hammered it into their heads.

--Mikael Wood

Photo: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times