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Review

Stray Cats conjoin plethora of musical genres in concert

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April 16, 2009

Last Friday was a beautiful night to be in downtown Minneapolis, waiting outside for a concert. Ben Brewster, the editor of this newspaper, and I were lined up on First Avenue on Friday evening to see Brian Setzer’s 50th birthday show at the Fine Line Music Café. It was a reunion show featuring Setzer’s famous 1980s retro-rockabilly band, the Stray Cats. The band, originally formed in 1979 by Setzer and his band mates Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker, recorded a few hits in the ‘80s which are still around today. Namely, “Stray Cat Strut,” “Rock This Town,” “Rumble in Brighton” and others.

Though a little chilly, Ben and I waited over an hour to get into the Fine Line to see some rockabilly. Rockabilly, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is an early style of rock n’ roll that was popular in the 1950s. Think Elvis. Rockabilly mixes elements of rock, country, blues, jazz and bluegrass music, but it stands on its own as a musical genre. Everyone outside the Fine Line that was waiting along First Avenue was decked from head to toe in rockabilly fashion: rolled up Levi’s, scuffed rail boots, black leather motorcycle jackets or navy work jackets, vintage glasses from the ‘50s, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and six-inch, greased pompadours piled high.

It was impossible to get another beer once Setzer and his two band mates came onstage—the crowd was packed thick. There was no opening act—just the Stray Cats. Setzer came out hoisting a big orange Gretsch guitar and waved to the crowd, his blonde pompadour slicked and styled, before all three Cats tore into one of their well-known hits, “Rumble in Brighton.” With Setzer onstage working the Gretsch and singing about street fights and switchblades, I couldn’t help but wish I had seen at least a little of the ‘50s.

A few songs later, the Cats backed off and Setzer stepped forward and smiled to the crowd before easing into a wicked rockabilly version of “Black Mountain Rag,” an ancient bluegrass melody that can be excessively difficult to play on electric guitar. Setzer, a gifted guitarist, missed a few notes on the way but ripped through the guitar rag beautifully. Without missing a beat, he transitioned into the next song at the conclusion of “Black Mountain Rag,” which was a seminal 1950s prom hit, “Sleepwalk.”

Brian Setzer, currently a resident of Minneapolis, mentioned his musical hero Eddie Cochran several times through the show. Cochran, an influential rockabilly musician of the 1950s, was born in Albert Lea, Minn., and recorded many classic hits you may know: “Summertime Blues,” “C’mon Everybody,” “Cut Across Shorty,” and others. As a tribute, the Stray Cats played several Cochran songs throughout the set, including “Twenty-Flight Rock” and “Somethin’ Else.” Seeing Setzer channel the music of his idol Eddie Cochran was a special thing—especially considering he’s already channeled Cochran by playing him in the 1987 movie “La Bamba.”

Setzer and his band also played plenty of smaller Stray Cats hits that the crowd gobbled up. I especially enjoyed the live versions of “Fishnet Stockings,” “18 Miles to Memphis,” “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.” In addition to playing Eddie Cochran music, Setzer also gave tribute to his other musical hero Gene Vincent, another rockabilly star. The Vincent hits that the Cats played included a favorite of mine, “Double-Talkin’ Baby,” played beautifully on Friday night.

The Stray Cats came out for two separate encores, the second one being a chance for Setzer to dig into a birthday cake and a Premium Grainbelt and share a few laughs with the crowd. After two more songs, the band left the stage and everyone knew it was for good.

Friday night at the Fine Line was one of the best Setzer shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen him play with his Orchestra twice, I’ve seen the original Stray Cats once before, and I’ve seen Setzer play solo a couple times as well. I’ve even met the man, and this weekend he seemed to be in especially good spirits, either from his birthday or the improving spring weather.

Setzer as a musician seems dedicated to his career-long campaign of modernizing and popularizing old styles of music, whether it be rockabilly, jazz, blues, folk, country, swing or even classical (check out his newest album, “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out”). He does it better than almost anyone I’ve seen, and if any musician is responsible for my love of ancient music, it’s him. If you don’t know the Stray Cats or are unfamiliar with Brian Setzer I suggest you do yourself a favor and listen.

Joe Hager is a student at UW-River Falls.