Picture Santa Claus himself re-imagined as an incredibly hip guitar-slinger, with a pompadour, sideburns, enough licks to make Les Paul and Cliff Gallup alike blush, and a killer 18-piece big band backing him up.
The holiday season just got a lot cooler and a lot less cold, right? That’s what it felt like when Brian Setzer and his orchestra took over UB’s Center for the Arts on Wednesday night for a rollicking take on holiday classics, steamy rockabilly and big-band jazz barn-burners.
Setzer, you should remember, came to prominence in the early ’80s as one-third of rockabilly trio the Stray Cats. That band brought a sense of fun and a respect for the deep traditions of rock ’n’ roll to a decade drowning in elegantly coiffured hair-metallers and po-faced alternative rock depressives.
When it all went south, Setzer launched a solo career that soon led to the formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, an 18-piece ensemble that allowed its leader to pursue his love of big-band jazz, swing and rock ’n’ roll in a robust, high-energy fashion.
Setzer and his orchestra are not strangers to Buffalo, having played now-legendary marathon shows at, among other venues, the Tralf. But he hasn’t been here in a good while. So Wednesday night’s show would’ve been a hotly anticipated sellout even without the holiday tie in, one suspects.
Either way, the holiday theme and abundance of radically reworked Christmas songs – as well as the festive decorations adorning the stage and the inclusion of two abundantly enthusiastic female backing vocalists dressed in sexy “Santa’s helper” costumes – certainly made the whole thing feel like one big party.
Wednesday night’s show took off out of the gate with an instrumental lead-in to “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus,” a swing/rockabilly hybrid that offered Setzer the first of many opportunities to spit out a jaw-dropping guitar solo.
It was immediately apparent that the orchestra was having as much fun as Setzer was, as he sauntered about the stage grinning like a child on Christmas morning. Most of the ensemble was given a chance to take a solo turn, and all proved themselves to be great players with obvious backgrounds in jazz.
An early highlight came in the form of “Boogie Woogie Santa,” a bright-tempo swing that turned into a tour de force for the band, as first the tenor sax player, then Setzer, the alto sax player, one of the four trombones and one of the trumpeters all took solos. The full house ate it up.
Several instrumental takes on holiday tunes benefited from inspired arrangements for the orchestra, among them “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which moved gracefully through a horn-led swing movement before erupting into a stellar Setzer guitar solo, and finally, a choral arrangement of the song’s indelible hook.
Late in the show, Setzer was joined by his bassist and drummer for a rockabilly mini-set, which celebrated his Stray Cats history. A smoking cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown” led into a spot-on rendering of Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ “Peggy Sue,” then into a smooth, swinging “Jingle Bell Rock,” and a scorching version of the Stray Cats’ “Fishnet Stockings.” This earned the band a standing ovation from the audience.
In addition to being one of the finest electric guitarists going – the man can play like Les Paul and Eddie Cochran with equal conviction and chops – Setzer is a great band leader, a gracious host and a man who clearly takes great joy in the making of music and is able to transfer that joy to the crowd. He also knows how to throw one great holiday party.