“Gonna rock a little bit. Gonna have a little fun.” — “Let’s Shake”
That’s how BRIAN SETZER starts his new album ROCKABILLY RIOT: ALL ORIGINAL (Surfdog). But let’s correct something here; these 12 tracks rock A LOT. And they’re A LOT of fun–which is something the three-time Grammy Award winner has shown he knows how to do very, very well during the nearly 35 years since the international spotlight first shined on his skills as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, not to mention his impressively coifed pompadour.
“I think this album sounds to me a little bit like the first Stray Cats record,” says SETZER, who is fully armed here with his trademark twang and fretboard fire.”It’s rockabilly songs. It’s not just blues songs in the rockabilly style. People like to call it ‘neo-billy’ I suppose, which is some invented word that somebody came up with, but if that’s the word they want to use, I’d like to go with that because it sounds to me like it’s very modern and fresh-sounding rockabilly.”
There’s no question ROCKABILLY RIOT is a contemporary kind of rockabilly record, sounding like SETZER and his white-hot band–Mark Winchester (bass), Kevin McKendree (piano) and Noah Levy (drums)–time-warped back to Memphis’ Sun Studios in the mid-‘50s, it was actually recorded with producer Peter Collins in Nashville but with 2014 chops and attitude. Peeling out with the revved-up propulsion of the first single, “Let’s Shake” (“I can’t believe no one thought of that title before,” SETZER quips).
SETZER, consistently cited as one of the world’s greatest living guitarists, and company play songs with an abandon and meticulous precision, from the train track shuffles of “Calamity Jane” and “Rockabilly Blues,” to the gritty rave-ups of “Nothing is a Sure Thing” and “Stiletto Cool,” the smooth romanticism of “The Girl With the Blues in Her Eyes” and “Blue Lights Big City,” and the left turns of “I Should Have Had a V8,” which veer from folky storytellers’ verses into flat-out rockin’ choruses.
“I had given the songs I’d written to all the band members and we hadn’t arranged them,” SETZER recalls. “I think the only way you can make a better rockabilly record is if you get Elvis to sing, because Mark Winchester, Kevin McKendree and Noah Levy are the best in their craft. So this record was different where we didn’t have to sit down and labor over arrangements. Everything was learned, and my guitar sound sounded so good I just made the record. We didn’t need to change guitars, amps, microphones; we just cut a rockabilly record. There’s no overdubs, there’s no splicing, there’s no auto tuning. What you hear is what you get; it’s pretty much us making live music.”
And, he adds, capturing it thanks to Peter Collins a British-born muso who’s previously worked with SETZER on his Vavoom! and The Dirty Boogie albums.
“It’s funny how English producers have a great sense of what Rockabilly music is,” SETZER notes. “It’s true it was invented in the US, but they seem to know what it should sound like. Peter Collins is an experienced and accomplished producer. He’s done a lot of records, but he loves rockabilly music and he knows what it should sound like.”
SETZER, of course, knows exactly what rockabilly should sound like; after all, he ushered it back into the rock mainstream during the punk- and New Wave-saturated late 70s and early 80s. The Massapequa, N.Y., native was a music fan in general when he became taken with one of rockabilly’s early icons–Eddie Cochran. “One day I saw a picture of him and said, ‘Wow, that guy looks really cool.’ Then I found out he did ‘Summertime Blues’ and it blew me away–I thought The Who did that, y’know? (laughs) Then I heard ‘Something Else’ and, man, that’s MY kind of rock song.”
SETZER began looking the part as well as playing it, and even though the jock crowd at his high school didn’t like it he found kindred spirits in Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker; together they formed the Tomcats, changing the moniker to the Stray Cats after they moved to England in June 1980 and finding an immediately receptive audience that led to tours of Europe and Japan and opening slots for the Rolling Stones. “The kids were ready for us, but the record companies weren’t,” SETZER recalls. Among those fans was British rocker Dave Edmunds, no stranger to rockabilly himself and the producer of two of the trio’s first three albums.
“They’re as natural as you can get,” Edmunds said at the time. “They look great and play great. I think it’s as good as any of the 50s rockabilly. BRIAN SETZER, he’s like Eddie Cochran–he writes great songs and is a great guitar player who still hasn’t tapped all his potential.”
The Stray Cats’ homecoming in 1982 set off a hurricane of rockabilly revivalism that included two hit albums and a trio of Top 10 singles–“Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut” and “She’s Sexy + 17.” More importantly it gave the genre renewed respect on a global level. “Rockabilly music should be up there in regards with blues music,” SETZER says. “It should be playing in arenas. And, I think, it’s better than the blues because it has a style to it, it has accomplished musicians playing it and it’s totally American. So I think it’s very underrated music that should be more in the forefront of our culture.”
There’s more than rockabilly in SETZER’s loaded bag of music, however. After the STRAY CATS disbanded in 1984 (with periodic reunions in subsequent years), he surprised fans with the earnest Americana of the critically lauded The Knife Feels Like Justice in 1986and has gone on to explore a variety of musical (and lyrical) forms, tearing it up on albums such as Live Nude Guitars, getting deeply personal on Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy, taking a stab at iconic classical music compositions on Wolfgang’s Big Night Out and reminding us (as if we needed it) of his fleet-fingered virtuosity on Setzer Goes Instru-Mental! He was also one of the vanguards of the 90s swing movement, defying naysayers by forming the BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA, a 17-piece, guitar-led big band that became a concert favorite and sent the lively “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” up the charts and into TV ads.
Along the way SETZER has been honored with three Grammys as well as the Orville H. Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award and a best-selling line of Gretsch signature model guitars bearing his name. He played Eddie Cochran in the 1987 film “La Bamba” and was animated for “The Simpsons” in a 2002 episode that also featured Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
ROCKABILLY RIOT, of course, finds the iconic SETZER back in his “native habitat,” sounding like the same pompadoured kid who came out of Long Island more than 35 years ago. But rest assured there’s more to come, in directions even SETZER himself probably can’t predict. “I gotta tell ya, to me it’s all just music. I know people like to put little labels on things so they can make it tidy. But for me, it all comes from the same mom and dad, which is the blues, jazz, country, swing, rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no reason to be limited to just one thing, ever.