“When he starts to boogie, the whole town rocks.”
That’s part of the refrain Brian Setzer sang with no small degree of ceremony when describing jolly ol’ St. Nick as his justly billed Christmas Extravaganza got under way last night at the Singletary Center of the Arts. But the veteran guitarist and rockabilly stylist could have just as easily been singing about himself.
The line comes from Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, an oft-covered holiday novelty tune first popularized by Mabel Scott in 1948. But within this program’s grasp, the song unlocked the depth and vigor of the 18 member orchestra the guitarist had in tow. And this was no symphony. The lineup sported an acoustic bassist, drummer, two backup singers and Setzer. The remaining13 members were all horn players. Needless to say, when Setzer undercut the brass attack with meaty but powerfully exact guitar runs, the joint very much got rocking.
Sure, he was singing about a Santa Claus that likes his Christmas cheer placed in very visible motion. But last night, Setzer proved to be the true boogie man.
Performed on a stage illuminated by holiday trees, stockings and, of course, Santa hats for all the horn players, the concert could have easily tipped over into gaudy holiday excess. But despite wearing its seasonal sentiments very openly, the two hour set was an immensely entertaining blend of rockabilly, jazz, soul and more. And in a condensed encore version of The Nutcracker Suite, the music shifted more specifically from Count Basie-style swing to feverish polka.
Setzer’s guitar work understandably led the ensemble charge. Creating a marvelous sonic foil for the massive horn sound, Setzer continually referenced roots rock forefathers like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in his playing, whether it was through the crisp, nocturnally inclined tone of non-holiday originals like ’49 Mercury Blues and Drive Light Lightning (Crash Like Thunder) or the sass evident in Louis Prima’s Jump, Jive ‘an Wail and the elemental Chuck Berry Yuleide staple Run Rudolph Run .The latter two were played as part of a stripped down trio set near the show’s conclusion.
A few stray hits from Setzer’s days with the rockabilly trio Stray Cats (highlighted by the giddy Fishnet Stockings) colored the set. But the big fun clearly belonged to a spirit of the season brought to life last night in full and unapologetically rocking splendor.