Greased back hair, flashy tattoos, Gretsch guitars and Hot Rod Rockabilly rhythms, put them all together and you've got an image of Brian Setzer from the Stray Cats. A runaway greaser punk shooting on the scene during the early eighties. For a while I thought that Setzer's love for early R&R was all he had in common with Springsteen until I found a performance of the two of them together today flying around on BTX. As a bootleg the recording is much, it kind of sounds like a terribly worn down 45 rpm record with pops, clicks and scratches all over the place. But it is a nice testament of a unique Springsteen appearance. Springsteen wasn't touring in '82, but did make quite the number of guest appearances in that year and as it turns out one of them was during a Stray Cats show when they were playing his native Asbury Park. Springsteen joined the band for a three song set, taking the vocals on two. Eddie Cochran's "20 Flight Rock", Gene Vincent's "Be Bop A Lula" and Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" were played with the crowd going wild. Through the static you can tell Springsteen and the Stray Cats are on fire together.
The Stray Cats spearheaded the early eighties Rockabilly revival, a genre that tends to have one every ten to fifteen years or so. Their flashy appearance was tailor made for the early MTV generation and as far as revivals go, this was a more successful one. Springsteen was sympathetic to the revival, he had donated "Fire" to Robert Gordon earlier in '78, but he never jumped on board himself fully. Though you could make an argument that songs like "Johnny 99" or "Open All Night" fitted nicely into the trend. Ultimately Springsteen simply had too much of his own distinct voice to even be really associated with the retro movement. The Stray Cats and the Rockabilly revival had first found popularity in Britain, maybe because the UK had essentially missed out on on the first wave of the genre. But the Stray Cats popularity and original life as a band would prove to be brief. They scored three top ten Billboard hits in '82 and '83, most notably "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut" and that was it. The fad was momentarily over and the band had too little of an own voice to transcend it. The band split up over artistic differences in 1984, though they would reunite on various occasions over the next decades.
In the mid nineties Brian Setzer would find success again, spearheading yet another fad mixing Rockabilly and Swing. Setzer took a whopping 17 piece orchestra on the road performing songs of the Rockabilly heroes from the fifties dressed with a Duke Ellington sound. It was some of the most original music Setzer had ever produced and the very capable orchestra together with his uncanny guitar picking would make for some red hot live shows. Commercially the albums with the orchestra didn't do all that much, except in Japan, but Setzer was able to keep the orchestra afloat for a very respectable time by touring extensively with it. There was a flood of bands that jumped on the scene when the fad hit its peak with groovy names like the Cherry Popping Daddies, but none of them were good enough to make any lasting impact. Neither did Setzer, again his inability to write meaningful songs never pulled the band beyond being a nice oddity even though he did earn a Grammy for his interpretation of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" somewhere along the ride.
Setzer has earned quite a few hardcore fans over the years that keep his career afloat up till a certain degree, mostly because he is respected for his puristic approach. He still gives a hell of a show, worth while checking out if you're feeling nostalgia for music that had its hey day when Springsteen was barely old enough to pick up a guitar. I believe the Stray Cats are even doing a farewell tour again.
Download the show in mp3 here
Sound: 2- out of 5
Show: 3+ out of 5