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Struts and frets

Wailing on guitar, Brian Setzer and his blissful big band tear into festive fare and some revamped classics for their sixth annual Christmas Extravaganza.

December 24, 2007|John Payne | Special to The Times

Ex-Stray Cats main man Brian Setzer has found life after rockabilly by stepping forward into the past. He and his dazzling big band rip the roots of swing, jazz and early rock 'n' roll with a punky verve whose sheer joy is nigh irresistible.

On Friday, the first of two sold-out nights of the sixth annual Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza at Gibson Amphitheatre, the nattily dressed guitarist-singer delivered a wildly eclectic party, leading his brass-heavy ensemble in a rocked-up compendium of classic cuts from several eras in decades past, plus a sprinkling of Christmas standards tricked out in appropriately swingin' settings provided by Les Brown's longtime arranger, Frank Comstock.

This was an old-fashioned Really Big Show on a garishly beautiful stage strewn with Christmas trees, giant wrapped gifts, a golden arch that framed vintage video clips (hot rods, sock hops, dancing Santas) and a glimmering jukebox center stage, visually linking the varied retro musical styles that Setzer stirred and served with such tasteful expertise.

A warmly kitschy-ironic vibe pervaded as the 17-member orchestra -- in their fuchsia and tiger-stripe jackets -- tore into wild and woolly versions of holiday fare including "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Sleigh Ride" and a gorgeously vocal-harmonized "Angels We Have Heard on High" later encoring with a head-spinningly clever arrangement of "The Nutcracker Suite."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Setzer's guitar: In Monday's Calendar section, a review of Brian Setzer's performance at the Gibson Amphitheatre said that Setzer's guitar was a Gibson. He was playing a Gretsch.

Throughout, so-cool Mr. Setzer strutted and strolled the stage, conducting the band with neat swerves of his trademark orange Gibson hollow-body guitar. Making with the small talk and funny chitchat, Setzer proved not just a likable master of ceremonies but also a bona fide scholar of swing, jazz, rockabilly, rock 'n' roll and even classical styles. His fleet-fingered guitar solos and jazzy comping referenced Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" and a klezmerized version of Beethoven's "Fur Elise," as well as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Setzer tipped a hat to his former bandmates on "Stray Cat Strut" (segueing neatly into "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch") and "Rock This Town," egging on the band in cracklingly hot runs through "Jump Jive 'an Wail," "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus," "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," a ferociously funky "Fishnet Stockings" and a way suave "Route 66."

Setzer's big band -- which has just been nominated for a Grammy in the best classical crossover album category for "Wolfgang's Big Night Out" -- is a well-lubricated energy machine, with sterling trumpet and sax soloists and a great pounding drive supplied by a pompadoured drummer and stand-up bassist, the last of whom joined Setzer mid-set for a considerably rawer and tougher front-of-stage trio set that allowed Setzer room to stretch his considerable guitar chops. The studious and virtuosic way he presented the material kept this show well clear of Sha Na Na territory.

The opening act the Detonators purveyed a super-tight, sassy batch of rockabilly and roots rock 'n' roll that included singer Dibbs Preston bravely tackling Roy Orbison's octave-leaping "In Dreams" in spite of obviously strained vocal cords. The band made up for it with extra helpings of good-humored vigor and wickedly good instrumental work.

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