The Brian Setzer Orchestra
5th Annual Christmas Extravaganza
Northern Lights Theater Milwaukee, WI 11/20/2006




Concert Review by
Paul "Zombie" Kloiber

Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas! Whoa! Wait a minute!! Hold the phone!!! It's not even Thanksgiving yet and we're already starting with the Christmas stuff? Now I'm just like the rest of you, I don't need Christmas this early. But in the case of Brian Setzer and his orchestra, Christmas comes everyday on this tour, and we get the presents!

For over 20 years Brian Setzer has been an innovator in the music scene. First with the band the "Stray Cats" back in the eighties, he brought back rockabilly with its twanging guitar and stand up bass. Then in the nineties he reinvented himself with "The Brian Setzer Orchestra" and helped to usher in the new era of swing music that took the country by storm. Continuing in that rockin, swinging, get-up-out-of-your-seat-and-dance tradition we come to his opening night concert at the fabulous Northern Lights Theater inside Potawatomi Bingo & Casino in Milwaukee. This is THE Christmas show to out rock, out swing and out class every other Christmas show. Complete with a stage set-up that includes BSO stockings, Christmas trees, garland, "Nutcracker" toy soldiers and an inflatable snow man to set the holiday mood.

Setzer took the stage complete with his fifties pompadour hair do and a swingin' band of fifteen all dressed in matching leopard skin jackets and black and white saddle shoes. Aside from all the talent in the band there were two gorgeous pin-up girl vocalists, (Julie Reiten and Leslie Smith) who the people at my table referred to as "Betty" and "Veronica" from "Archie" comics. But believe me when I say there was nothing comical about these two vixens. They came out on stage escorted by Santa and dressed to kill in knee high white leather go-go boots and fishnet hose, but their sultry voices were the hottest part about them. Setzer came out, his guitar slung low, to a rockabilly/swing intro of the James Bond Theme music. He let the whole audience know that Santa had come early. His first few songs were the swingin' Christmas tunes from his last two CDs, including "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus", "This Cat's On A Hot Tin Roof" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" featuring solos on the alto sax, the tenor sax, trumpet and the trombone! This show started off with a bang and went straight to BOOM! Rarely have I seen a band having so much fun. Their energy and connection to each other as well as the musical play off each other was electric. At one point members of the trumpet section were having fun playing with the backs of the trombone players heads in front of them. This was an all out party and these guys came to play!

Photo: Bill Engels

The next four songs were also in the Christmas vein, but varied in pace. "Walking In A Winter Wonderland" was done in a slightly more mellow swing style and followed up by an all out jam version of "Sleigh Ride". Then came Setzer's own Christmas song, one entitled "Hey Santa" or as he put it on stage, "Hey Santa, Hey Santa, Hey Santa, Hey Santa". This one started off in the sax section, cruised over to the trombone section, swung like Tarzan on a vine and ended with a Dixieland New Orleans swing featuring Robbie Hioki on a bright red tuba and Santa tossing candy canes into the audience. Man, what a ride! Setzer's vocals were crisp and clean and sounded like not a day had passed since his Stray Cat days. He twanged away on his vast assortment of Gretsch guitars, changing color or style for nearly every song. He took a few seconds to introduce the next song, explaining that it was his daughters' favorite from "The Sound Of Music" and treated us to the single best version of "My Favorite Things" that I have ever heard, starting off slow and soft and building to a swing-a-billy crescendo that had the whole band on its feet.

From that point on, the band and the audience were in perfect sync. "Stray Cat Strut" was next and with the crowd singing along while he took us on a detour to "Whoville" and slid the "Stray Cats" classic right into "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch", complete with the Grinch himself on back-up guitar. The trip back continued with "Sexy + 17" and by the time he swung full tilt into "Jump Jive N' Wail" he had the audience dancing in the aisles. He finished up the orchestra set with "Angels We Have Heard On High" "White Christmas" (complete with snow falling on the audience from up above) and "Little Jack Frost" sung seductively by Julie and Leslie (who could melt Jack Frost down to his toes). From the soft lilt of the girls' voices to the varied horns, drums and bass the sound was perfect. Kudos to Dave on the soundboard for another great job!

After a brief respite to change around a few items and excuse the band we were treated to Brian, John Hatton on the stand up bass and Bernie Dresel on the snare and bass drum stand up kit. Oh yeah! We were on a rockin' time trip back to his trio days and Setzer had the pedal to the metal. Kicking it up into overdrive the three men strummed, plucked and banged us through such jams as "16 Chicks" "Red Hot" and "Gene & Eddie". These songs were pure rock-a-billy and showed that the sounds that made Setzer a rock and roll icon are still as powerful today. "Jingle Bell Rock", a sweet version of "Jingle Bells" and the powerhouse "Fishnet Stockings" finished up the trio set, which saw John Hatton standing on that red flamed bass and cranking the audience up to fever pitch. The show ended with the trio and the band jamming together to "Brand New Cadillac" with a touch of "Peter Gunn" and the Setzer vocalized version of "Gettin' In The Mood (For Christmas)". Classic and new all at once this show was a blast and Setzer was having as much fun as we were, maybe more. This was never more evident than when he was jamming along and I could see him say (probably to only himself, with the volume of the band), "I love this". But wait,.this wasn't over yet. With the crowd still on their feet and screaming, the band retook the stage for an encore that truly completed this awesome show. Joking with the audience Setzer unfurled what looked to be sheet music about eight feet long and he and his band led off the encore with the Grammy winning swing version of "The Nutcracker Suite". Following along on his sheet music Setzer made his version the new standard when it comes to reworking classical into pop. Next up was the Stray Cats classic "Rock This Town" slightly modified of course for the big band swing sound. This was the perfect ending for the best concert I have seen this year, or the last three years for that fact. This was the best way I have ever started off a holiday season. And for anyone who thought Setzer was nothing more than a guitar slinging throwback to days long gone..well let's hope that you like coal in your stocking because the Santa I saw SWINGS!!! For the rest of you, buy yourself an early Christmas present, grab up some tickets and strut yourself over to the show.

This show rates my first ever perfect A+

Special thanks goes out to Shay, Tami, Stephanie, Dave and all the staff at Northern Lights for taking such excellent care of us at every show! All of you are the best!

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