Saturday Night: Brian Setzer Orchestra's "Christmas Rocks" at Arena Theatre
Within the taxonomy of rock and roll, rockabilly (bless its hot rod heart) can get dismissed as a one-trick pony with a ducktail for a mane and flames painted on its haunches. At least it can by people who see only kitsch when they should be looking for skill.
Fronting Long Island trio the Stray Cats, Brian Setzer took rockabilly to the Top 10 and the cover of Rolling Stone about 20 years past the genre's original sell-by date. Some time later, he made the peanut-butter-and-chocolate connection between rockabilly and big-band swing and was charting Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail" on the Modern Rock Top 20 as late as 1998.
Then he decided to play Santa Claus -- and not just any right jolly old elf, but a "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus."
Saturday night, Setzer brought his deluxe Orchestra to the Arena Theatre for his ninth annual "Christmas Rocks" tour, which made for quite the procession of tour buses in the alley opposite the Arena's parking garage. Populating those buses were 13 horn players, who brought a few woodwinds for good measure (and the "Nutcracker Suite" encore); two buxom female backup vocalists in velvety sheath-dresses; and an upright bassist and drummer, each of whom had his share of scene-stealing moments. And a partridge in a pear tree.
The bassist had a Santa hat perched on the neck of his instrument, only a slight distraction from the bright purple flames painted on the front. Not to be outdone, the drummer performed a lengthy solo on those bass strings during "Fishnet Stockings," one of several textbook rave-ups performed while the horns were taking a, hmmm... breather. (Rimshot!)
Those horns, meanwhile, sank their lips into some sumptuous charts, be it the Glenn Miller "Chattanooga Choo Choo" territory and Louis Jordan jump-blues on "Sleigh Ride" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," or the brass-chorale harmonies of "Angels We Have Heard On High." Each soloist stood up for his feature as per big-band traditon, always a fun sight to see.
The rest of the time they were punctuating the action with some amusing hand gestures -- after his solo, one trombone player flipped his mute up in the air for the guy in the row behind him to catch -- that were almost as entertaining. Even if the effect was a little diminished if the stage was revolving in the opposite direction, that much brass in that small a space can't help but make a wonderful sound.