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Q&A: Brian Setzer

Whether playing large clubs, theaters, casinos, or festivals, Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot knows how to capture an audience’s attention and turn the show into an interactive exchange of energy.

G.K. Hizer
July 28, 2019

While some people consider Brian Setzer a rock revivalist, it might be more appropriate to consider him a rock ‘n’ roll evangelist. Yes, Setzer was at the forefront of the early ‘80s rockabilly movement with his iconic band, Stray Cats, but the splintering of that group didn’t slow him down or lessen his ongoing impact in the music world.

After a short period as s sideman (including a position in the Honeydrippers, fronted by Robert Plant), his 1986 solo debut, The Knife Feels Like Justice, proved Setzer to be just as adept at R&B-inflected Americana. Following a short-lived Stray Cats reunion (the first of many), Setzer jumped back into the spotlight in the early ‘90s, this time reviving and revitalizing swing music with his 17-piece The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra proved so popular that the group pushed a remake of the Louis Prima song “Jump Jive an’ Wail” to the top of the charts and won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in 1998, as well as the award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “Sleepwalk” that same year. The Orchestra has been an ongoing project, releasing 11 albums and embarking on an annual Christmas tour each year that combines holiday tunes with rockabilly and swing hits.

This year has been a busy year for Setzer, as the Stray Cats celebrate the group’s 40th anniversary with a new album, aptly titled 40, and an international tour bringing the group stateside for a handful of select shows in August and September. Even so, that’s not enough to keep Setzer adequately occupied. Filling the gaps between Cats gigs, Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot sets out on a cross-country tour in August as well, with Brian fronting the band and continuing to bring fresh energy to rockabilly fans of all ages.

It should come as no surprise that Rockabilly Riot is arguably Setzer’s most active, ongoing project. After all, rockabilly is his first musical love, and as the leader of Stray Cats, many have pointed to him as the catalyst for the resurrection of rockabilly in general. With the Stray Cats being an on-again, off-again affair over the past 40 years, Rockabilly Riot gives Setzer a platform and a band with an explosive stage presence, yet stable chemistry.

Although the talent level in the Stray Cats is undeniable, with bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom both building respectable careers as artists and studio aces, the band has always had combustible chemistry. Don’t be mistaken and think for a minute that Rockabilly Riot sets that standard of musicianship any lower, however. Although the names may not be as recognizable, each of the members is just as strong, making for an explosive live show. Noah Levy (drums), Kevin McKendree (keyboards/guitar), and Mark Winchester (bass) come together with Setzer’s sizzling guitar to make a formidable team that leaves rockabilly fans (and rock enthusiasts in general) in a state of euphoria.

When discussing the band, Setzer has nothing but praise for his rock compatriots.

“When you look up rockabilly in the dictionary, there is a picture of Mark Winchester,” he says. “He grew up slapping the bass and is in a class of his own. The relationship with the drummer and bass player in rockabilly is unique. The slap bass is a rhythmic sounding instrument, so the drummer has to be very in time with him to not sound sloppy. Noah Levy is a very on the beat and a solid drummer; where, as a guitar player, I push everything while they hold it all in place. And when you’re talking about great rockabilly piano players, it’s a concise list, and Kevin McKendree is on it. He also plays guitar very well. We all complement each other.”

Whether playing large clubs, theaters, casinos, or festivals, Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot knows how to capture an audience’s attention and turn the show into an interactive exchange of energy. Last September, the band hit the main stage at the Bourbon & Beyond Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, just before 5 p.m. and not only held an appropriately festival-sized audience’s attention in the summer sun, but whipped the crowd into a rowdy, drink-slinging frenzy before heading into the evening’s headliners.

Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot hits the road Aug. 5 and spends the month crossing the country. The tour brings the group to The Joint: Tulsa at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa Aug. 22 for what promises to be a raucous rockabilly showcase of Setzer’s career to date. Fans can expect a cross section of the Rockabilly Riot catalog, as well as a handful of Stray Cats’ biggest hits, and maybe even a stripped-back taste of The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

Regardless of which group Setzer is playing with, his career has been dedicated to keeping rockabilly and swing music alive; infusing both with fresh energy to bring in a new generation (or two) of fans.

Brian Setzer
The Joint: Tulsa | Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa
777 W. Cherokee St. | Catoosa
918-384-ROCK (x7625)
Aug.22: 8 p.m.
Must be 21 or older to attend