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Guitar Slinger Strays Again

Pop music: With his 17-piece swing orchestra, Brian Setzer updates the big band sound much like he and the Cats did for rockabilly.

July 22, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Upon first glance at his track record, one might think that Brian Setzer had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the second half of the 20th century. Setzer--former front man of the latter-day, rockabilly Stray Cats and current leader of a 17-piece swing orchestra that bears his name--has forged a career in the '80s and '90s using the music of the '40s and '50s as a foundation.

But upon closer examination, Setzer--who brings the orchestra to the Orange County Fair on Tuesday--is less a revivalist than a traditionalist, using templates forged years ago as bases from which to extrapolate. The Stray Cats didn't so much cop a strict rockabilly sound and attitude as update the style for modern audiences. The Brian Setzer Orchestra is, for better or worse, much more about Setzer himself than it is about Basie, Ellington or Calloway.

On its second album, "Guitar Slinger," there are ferocious guitar solos, in-your-face songs, less-than-subtle horn charts and adenoidal, growling vocals that Sir Duke never would have dreamed about or understood. Setzer takes his music to places where no swing band has gone before: The big-band sound is hybridized and mutated with rock 'n' roll, injected with steroids and kicked in the butt.

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Some will dig it; others will shriek of blasphemy, but no one can claim that Setzer is a slave to the past. He is an innovator. It simply is a matter of taste whether one approves of his innovations.

"I love it," Setzer said of "Guitar Slinger" during a recent phone interview. "I think I got the second [album] more in the pocket I wanted. The first record, which I still like, was more of a swing record. We got signed to Hollywood Records kind of quickly for that one, and I got put in the studio pretty quickly. It was like, 'Jeez, I've got to write some songs here.'

"The band was still new; we hadn't really become a band yet. So after we did it, it was like, 'OK, this does work, and I all I have to do now is write some really good songs, and I'm all set.' I had more time on this one, and all the way around I think it's better."

Three songs on "Guitar Slinger" were co-written with Joe Strummer, the former leader of the Clash, who became friends with Setzer through a mutual interest in rebuilding vintage cars.

"It was great working with Joe. It was fun," Setzer said. "It was just one of those things that kind of came together. We went out to the desert and just sort of cruised around, and he wrote some lyrics for me. We ended up hanging around together all summer long, and we wrote a bunch of songs."

If Setzer's collaboration with Strummer wasn't signal enough of his dedication to rock 'n' roll, check out the covers on "Guitar Slinger." In place of the ill-advised knock-offs of artists such as Wynonie Harris that were featured on the orchestra's debut (songs that Setzer's thin vocal style served poorly), he tackles Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity" and Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The House Is Rockin"' and his own "Rumble in Brighton" from his Stray Cat days, all songs better suited to his soulful but limited pipes.

But the real appeal of Setzer, whether with the Cats or the orchestra, always has been his guitar playing. A trained musician who reads and writes charts and who knows music theory inside out, he plays with a healthy dose of jazz dazzle, clever chords and enough speed to keep pace with any metal hotshot. For all that, his guitarmanship always has been tasteful and concise, never going over the edge of what is required for a given piece.

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"I'm a big believer in playing your guitar solo and getting out of there," he said. "It's the song first. I can't stand 20-minute guitar solos where the guy is just [being self-indulgent]. If my guitar playing has changed in any way, it's gotten a little more jazzy, only because the band is blowing these huge jazz chords by me. There's a lot of big-boy stuff up there, and I don't know if a lot of rock guitar players could hang with it."

Setzer, 37, was taken by the guitar ever since he was a boy listening to the Beatles on the radio.

"The first guitar player I ever heard was George Harrison. The Beatles were the first band I ever heard, and I thought they all played guitars, so that's what I wanted to play. But when I first discovered rockabilly is when everything just kind of flew out the window for me.

"I really wanted to sound like Eddie Cochran and Cliff Gallup [the guitarist in the original lineup of Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps]. Cliff Gallup was the man that spun my world around. He was my biggest guitar inspiration. He summed it all up for me because he had a lot of jazz and rockabilly, and he mixed it all up the way I wanted to.

"I think of myself as a rockabilly guitar player first, but I don't think of myself strictly as a rockabilly guitar player. I take a lot of styles and mix them up, and Cliff Gallup did that too, and he did it in the '50s."

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