Brian Setzer at the Universal Amphitheatre

Brian Setzer, in fine voice and slinging his trademark Gretch guitar, brought an old-time variety show vibe to the Universal Amphitheatre on Saturday night (12/18).

After a few years of relatively low-profile recording and tour activity following the breakup of the Stray Cats in the early 90’s, Brian Setzer warmed to the concept of reaching farther back than 50’s rockabilly to resurrect big band orchestral arrangements for a new audience.

The project didn’t immediately win a following. It took three albums spread across four years for the Brian Setzer Orchestra to see much return on Sezter’s investment, striking gold in 1999 when clothing chain The Gap featured a Setzer Orchestra cover of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive ‘n Wail” in a commercial. The commercial tapped into a burgeoning swing dance revival of the time (part of which can be traced back to the 1996 hit film “Swingers“).

Setzer has since turned his orchestra into a reliable franchise, generating new studio output including 2002’s “Boogie Woogie Christmas” collection that has spawned an annual holiday tour.

A seasoned showman, Setzer runs the stage as part host, part conductor, part cheerleader and part band member. With a 15-piece horn section, drummer, upright bass and two 50’s pinup-style backup singers, there’s plenty to play off of.

True to the album that fueled their late-90’s breakout, the orchestra was tight and provided plenty of vaudevillian humor behind Setzer, pantomiming snow shovels with their horns in playfully choreographed segments. But while the horns were blowing, they were all business, perfectly synched around Setzer’s creative charts.

Setzer himself was in fine form, brandishing a voice that, like Bonnie Raitt’s, seems to become more seasoned and smooth with age. On the guitar front, Setzer has defined himself over the years with a mix of tasteful, jazzy chord progressions, lightning-fast runs and a one-of-a-kind tone. With his small army of Gretch hollow-body guitars, Setzer runs the sonic gamut from shimmering fills to thick growls of tone. Truly a wall of sound created by a master of technique.

Highlights included a note-perfect of “This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof,” a brilliant interplay of Nelson Riddle-flavored horn parts and rave-up guitar from 1998’s “The Dirty Boogie” and a fiery re-working of the Stray Cats hit “Rock This Town.”

Rock This Town” closed an energetic rockabilly trio set that revisited some of the early hits of Setzer’s career in their original form, played with upright bass and drums in front of a large stage curtain. About midway through the song, the curtain raised while the full orchestra kicked in, taking the song into its reinvented big band arrangement from “The Dirty Boogie” album. The effect was dramatic and clearly produced the desired response from the baby boomer audience.

Setzer is set to perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno tonight (12/20) before taking his holiday show to Atlantic City for a couple of New Year’s shows.

Main set with full orchestra:
Dig That Crazy Santa Claus
This Cat’s On A Hot Tin Roof
Boogie Woogie Santa Claus
The Dirty Boogie
Winter Wonderland
Sleigh Ride
Santa Claus Is Back In Town
Man With The Bag
Stray Cat Strut / You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch
Jump Jive ‘n Wail
‘Zat You Santa Claus
Let It Snow (with the Vixens)

Rockabilly Trio Set:
Run Rudolph Run (Trio)
Gene & Eddie (Trio)
Blue Christmas (Trio)
Jingle Bell Rock (Trio w/ the Vixens)
Rat Pack Boogie (Trio)
Fishnet Stockings (Trio)
Rock This Town (Trio and Orchestra)

Encores with full orchestra:
The Nutcracker Suite
Rumble In Brighton
Gettin’ In The Mood
Jingle Bells

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