December 8, 2015 The Brian Setzer Orchestra Spread Holiday Cheer NYCB Theatre At Westbury, NY 11-29-15
Dubbed the most wonderful time of the year, the Christmas holiday season holds a magic for people of all ages. It is a time where family and friends gather, reminisce on the year gone by, but most of all reflect on what is most important, having one another. Everyone has their own holiday traditions, and one holiday tradition which Rock-n-Roll lovers itch for each season is The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Christmas Rocks! show. The year, 2015 marks the twelfth annual Christmas Rocks! Tour by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, and this one is extra special since, on October 16th, their long awaited Christmas themed album, Rockin’ Rudolph, was released just in time to get people in the spirit. A staple for the holiday season, it is Setzer’s first holiday record in a decade and received rave reviews as a piece of music that is distinct to Setzer’s style, but with just enough tradition.
Kicking off the tour on November 14th, cities across the USA have the chance to check the tour throughout the Christmas season. Spreading joy with their music, on November 29th, the Sunday just after Thanksgiving, Long Island New York was ready for the annual holiday extravaganza. An extra special stop on the thirty-one date trek, Setzer is in fact a native Long Islander, growing up in the Massapequa area. Just a ten minute drive from where he grew up, the NYCB Theater at Westbury has been a venue visited year after year and, as usual, this show sold out with families and friends. Entering the area landmark theater, one could hear others talking about seeing the previous shows at NYCB at Westbury. With an audience made up of all ages, from children just starting to walk to their grandparents, some were dressed to the nines in fine suits, others in those classic “ugly” Christmas sweaters, but everyone was ready for a rocking good time.
Getting the stage warmed up was the one-man act known as Low Volts. A three time San Diego Music Award winner, Tim Lowman plays his own style of what he called “Dirty-Blues-Rock and Roll.” Singing and playing rhythm guitar, slide guitar, and using a kick-drum with tambourines attached to it, his act was nothing short of eye-catching. Always keeping a thick backbeat going by playing the kick drum, he not only played it as it was meant to be played, but he jumped on top of it and stomp his foot on it to release the tambourines. Interestingly, Low Volts not only sounded like more than one-man act, but he never even used the word “I” when referring to the band, and opted instead used “Us” and “We” as if the instruments were one with him.
At one point, he even bantered with an invisible bass player during the performance, which got a good laugh from the audience. Playing several original songs including “I Cried My Guts Out” and “My Fixin’” from his 2011 release Twist Shake Grind Break, he kept with the holiday theme by playing his style of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Blue Christmas.” Ending his eight song, thirty plus minute set, Low Volts said, “Goodnight circular people, it was fun playing on a moving round stage for you!” Continuing to be engaging, He then said they would be at the merchandise table in the lobby should anyone like to come visit his band, “We will be around a while, can’t break up a one-man act, we are in this for life.” Giving everyone a good laugh, cheers came pouring down for the highly entertaining performer.
Allowing the audience a chance to get up, stretch their legs, and grab a drink, during intermission everyone was greeted by local radio personalities from 102.3 WBAB FM, Donna Donna and Joe Rock. Making several announcements, one which included announcing the winner who won front row seats to the show as well as a Brian Setzer Signature Series Gretsch guitar. Not a bad early Christmas present at all to take home, everyone would have a little something to take home with them once “Run Run Rudolph” started to play over the PA system and a roar excitement penetrated the stage. The sixteen-piece band and two female back up singers came on to the platform and took their places while the track continued to play. The band, all adorned in green shimmering suits with red Santa hats and the ladies, in full pin-up style, were in green shimmering dresses, red heels and red flowers in their hair, made for a cheerful atmosphere that fit the music about to begin.
Beginning with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” off of the new release Rockin’ Rudolph, once the band was in full swing, Setzer ran out and no one could contain their excitement. Wearing a sharp gray suit, a black dress shirt with white skulls on it and crisp black and white penny loafers, Setzer immediately broke into the song. Before the next song, the band took off their Santa hats and they then transitioned into “This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof” off of 1998’s The Dirty Boogie. To many concert goers surprise following the two opening songs, a little girl approached the stage and handed Setzer a red plaque. He gladly took it from her and gave her a kiss, then read the holiday greeting written on it for everyone to hear. Although, the surprises did not stop there as another audience member approached and handed him an award. This one was an award for being inducted into the Long Island Music Hall Of Fame. Setzer held it up high for everyone to see and then proudly displayed in on top of his stack of Fender amps, where it remained for the rest of the show. Overwhelmed with appreciation, he said, “I can see what kind of night this will be, thank you all so much!”
Taking the crowd back to his Rockabilly Stray Cats days, the band kicked into bit hit “Stray Cat Strut,” from 1982’s Built For Speed. As the orchestra really rocked it out, the song included a heavy bass solo by Johnny Hatton and the fans just ate it up. A man yelled out from the audience and held the green guitar above the crowd for Setzer to see, it was one of Setzer’s Signature Series Gretsch Guitars. Taking notice to this man, Setzer invited him to the stage, took it from him and held it up, commenting on how they are guitar twins because at the moment Setzer himself had the same guitar strapped over his shoulder. After handing the guitar back to the fan, they played “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” a song that gave a lot of room to showcase the amazing talent accompanying Setzer, as there was a piano solo by Kevin McKendree along with separate Sax, Trumpet, and Trombone solos.
Setzer introduced the two backup singers as “The Vixens, Leslie and Julie” (Leslie Spencer and Julie Reiten-Setzer) as they came up to the front of the stage to sing alongside of Setzer for the next song, “(She’s) Sexy + 17,”off of Stray Cats 1983’s Rant N’ Rave. As things were heating up, mid song, Setzer took his suit jacket off and some of the female audience members began to holler. Once the song was over, The Vixens return to their regular place on stage and Setzer asked the crowd, “How is the sound out there?” Greeted by a sea of applause, Setzer smiled replying, “Pretty good!” as they began “Here Comes Santa.” Drummer Noah Levy was keeping a strong Rockabilly beat and midway through the song the horns were blaring as the fans sung along to this fun Christmas song. Once the song was over, The Vixens left the stage for a cover of the haunting Santo & Johnny instrumental, “Sleepwalk.” Playing the emotion of the classic tune, Setzer broke into an incredible guitar solo that lasted all the way to the end of the song. Once the solo was over, The Vixens return to the stage as a female audience member screamed out , “We love you Brian!” as a humble Setzer smiled and nodded his head before they kicked off into “Angels We Have Heard On High” from 2005’s Dig That Crazy Christmas. During this song, The Vixens and Hatton filled the room with harmonies with a beautiful chorus style.
Keeping the excitement high, Setzer later said, “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everybody! I have an idea, lets shake!” The Vixens agreed by saying, “Yes, lets shake!” and the band started the song “Lets Shake” from Brian Setzer’s 2014 Rockabilly Riot! All Original. Midway through the song, Setzer sang, “Let’s shake, rattle, and roll” while putting his hands in the air clapping as the audience swiftly followed his direction clapping to the beat. Adding to the fun of the show, as the song continued, there was a playful moment between Hatton and Spencer as Hatton needed to fix his hair, so Spencer strummed away on the bass for him. A solo later broke out between Setzer and one of the sax players, and it was such a strong solo that the sax player left the line and joined Setzer at the front of the stage. They played off one another with such vigor that it brought both musicians to their knees. As if that was not exciting enough, the next song was signature Setzer cut, “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.”
After rocking and rolling for a bit, it was time to take it down just a little. Two microphones and another drum set were brought up on the stage and placed in line with Setzer’s microphone, as the entire horn section left the stage. Just Setzer, The Vixens, Hatton, and McKendree remained on the stage as the song “Jingle Bell Rock” came next. The Vixens share one microphone as Hatton sang the lovely harmonies into the other. After playing most of the song, they stopped and Setzer commented, “Now I know how you Californian’s do it, but here in my hometown, we call it a cappella.” With that said, the song continued with just the vocals and harmonies, which encouraged the audience to join in and sing along with the quartet.
Bringing the mood back up, Setzer invited some audience members to join him in the next song. The people chosen were not random patron, but instead they were people who are near and dear to Setzer as he introduces, “My brother Gary (Setzer) will join me on drums and my long time friend Dibbs (Stephen “Dibbs” Preston) will sing this next song for you all.” After the intro, they tore into a killer rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire.” Having two more stellar musicians now on stage with Setzer, it was no wonder why when McKendree went into his solo, smoke bellowed and rose from beneath his piano. The guest singer, Dibbs, shook hands with Setzer and waved to the cheering audience as he left the stage and McKendree left the stage as well. Now with just Setzer, Hatton, and Gary Setzer left on the stage, the trio went into some down right Rockabilly, bringing the room back to 1981 with “Fishnet Stockings” from the Stray Cats self-titled album. Holding absolutely nothing back, the trio let loose, and at one point there was a mean slapping bass solo followed by Setzer jumping aboard the kick drum and Hatton standing on the body of his stand up bass, physically bringing themselves and the fans to an all out high. Once the song was over, the audience eagerly stood on their feet giving them the first full standing ovation of the evening. The trio gracefully bowed and Gary Setzer departed from the stage as Levy came back out wearing a leopard print suit jacket.
Seeming like the fun would never stop, “Rockin’ Rudolph” came next, and about two minutes into the song, the entire band, now also dressed in the leopard print suit jackets, returned to the stage. When the song ended, Setzer asked, “Hey Long Island, are you ready to rock this town yet?” They roared with cheers but Setzer said, “I can’t hear you!” and the roar drastically increased. Setzer took his suit vest off, rolled up his sleeves, un-tucked his shirt from his pants and just let it all hang out. as they jammed into “Rock This Town,” a Stray Cats original. The song kept that heavy thumping Rockabilly beat and had an energized drum solo. As it played on, the entire orchestra stood up, which brought the entire audience up on their feet as well. Setzer said, “Thank you all so much, God bless” before he and the band waved, and then Setzer left the stage as the audience cheered for more.
The break was short, and in only moments, Setzer returns for an encore in a red glimmering suit jacket with a plain black t-shirt underneath. They opened with a fun song off their latest release, “Yabba Dabba Yuletide.” Then going into an instrumental, “Nutcracker Suite,” several members of the horn section took turns at solos throughout the song. As The Vixens returned to the stage, the band members all put their Santa hats back on as a quick flash of red came running out, it was Santa Claus himself! Fittingly, “Jingle Bells” was the final song of the evening as Santa joyfully ran around the outer rim of the round stage and tossed handfuls of candy canes out into the crowd as he playfully danced around Setzer. As festive as that was, near the end of the song, snow fell from the rafters onto the first few rows of the audience as everyone everyone soaked it in for a grand closing. Marking the end, the original version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” filled the air as Setzer, and the eighteen-piece band, all swayed to the song, singing the lyrics and waving. The audience joined in as they too swayed and sang along, and as Setzer began to leave the stage, the room was overtaken by cheers for one heck of a show.
Brian Setzer’s performance was top notch. His vocals were superb and his guitar playing was second to none. Well-oiled seasoned musicians, who all played harmoniously together, accompanied him, and this fun, energetic family oriented event is not to be missed. Some may say the show gets better each season, and they may be right. It is hard not to look ahead to the 2016 holiday season as The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Christmas Rocks! show is definitely a holiday tradition like no other.