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Denver Post
Denver Post

Brian Setzer Orchestra drowns out the skeptics

By G. Brown
Denver Post Special Writer

Aug. 1, 1998 - Even back in his Stray Cats rockabilly days, it was apparent that Brian Setzer loved American roots music. To "ring with swing'' in 1992, he assembled a 17-piece ensemble under the moniker of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a rocking big band replete with brass, piano and percussion.

"All the people in the business, from club owners to record labels, were saying, "What are you doing? This is crazy! You can't put a band this big together and play a gig and make a record. Why hasn't anyone done it before if it's so great?' '' Setzer, 38, said recently.

"So I've really bucked the odds. The music speaks for itself, and the band has managed to keep its head above the water.''

Now that the martini-sipping, zoot-suit wearing attitude is more popular than ever, it's up to Setzer to show the young whippersnappers - the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, the Royal Crown Revue - how to pull off big-band music with energy, passion and skill.

"Look, I say hats off to some of these bands, because they're actually getting this music to the masses, and they've opened up some doors on the radio. They're starting a scene with some style,'' Setzer said. "The mistake they're making? None of them wants to be

called swing - "We're not a swing band.' Well, you are! And it's a good thing. There are serious swing musicians out there, some of the older cats who've been doing it their whole lives, who would kill to get a crack at airplay.

"They should embrace it. The reason they're denying it is they don't want to be part of the fad. But that can't be helped. That's how it works.''

As a kid growing up in the suburbs of New York, Setzer soaked up the best jazz the city had to offer. "We used to cut class and take the train into Manhattan and just hang out all day. We'd check out the models on the Upper East Side with our tongues hanging out, and at night we'd go up to Greenwich Village. We would bounce from the East Village - maybe we'd see the Ramones - to the West Village to see jazz. And one of the first bands we saw, only because they let us in with a bad fake ID, was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. There were more guys in the band than you could put in that club! It was just mind-blowing.''

The Brian Setzer Orchestra is back with a new record, "The Dirty Boogie,'' where Setzer's enthusiasm for rockabilly, his respect for the jazz greats and his infatuation with the sound of horns have coalesced. "This is not a '40s style jazz big band. It's really a rock 'n' roll band that happens to wear the mask of being a big band. We started out playing sweaty clubs and getting a rock 'n' roll reception, not polite clapping. It's like a freight train,'' Setzer said.

"I've just been trying to figure out the best way to record this thing. . . . I found a slap bass player who could read music, know where the chords are going - that makes the record jump. I've left a little more space in the chart writing. And I recorded a different way - I captured the rhythm section's sound first and then put on the big band.''

The high points of "The Dirty Boogie'' are the rippin' "This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof,'' the title track and a cover of the Elvis Presley/Ann-Margret chestnut "You're The Boss'' (a duet with No Doubt's Gwen Stefani). The first single, "Jump Jive An' Wail,'' an old Louis Prima tune, is getting action on KBCO and KTCL.

The album is smothered with Setzer's wicked guitar stylings.

"High notes are for sissies - and I say that because I can't get past the 12th fret on a Gretsch guitar!''

A swingin' remake of the classic Stray Cats tune "Rock This Town'' features a shout chorus and cool saxes and trombones.

"People yell stuff from the crowd, and I take their cue. When I go see a band, I want to hear the hits, some songs I've heard on the radio,'' Setzer explained.

"We had written a great chart for "Rock This Town' and were playing it live and bringing the house down. I thought, "I wrote the song, I sang it, people love it - why not put it on the record?' ''

The Brian Setzer Orchestra will perform at the Paramount Theatre Sunday night. Setzer may never attain the heights of popularity he enjoyed in the '80s with the Stray Cats, but he feels "pretty lucky. I'm doing well with another band now. I don't know how many people have actually done that.

"And it's tough now . . . a lot of talented guys just disappear after a year. I'd like to make a button that says "Where's Weezer?' ''

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