The Brian Setzer Orchestra to perform at F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre on Christmas Rocks! Tour
If Santa Claus wore dark shades and a black leather jacket, and the elves kept their cigarettes rolled up in the sleeves of their white T-shirts, they’d play the kind of Christmas music that Brian Setzer churns out every holiday season. The ultra-cool master of rockabilly and swing has a penchant for yuletide tunes, and he’ll be bringing his hip versions of traditional songs to Wilkes-Barre.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra is coming to the F.M. Kirby Center on Nov. 25 as part of the 12th Annual Christmas Rocks! Tour, and the 19-piece band will be playing songs from its first studio Christmas album in a decade, “Rockin’ Rudolph,” as well as selections from three previous holiday records.
Setzer is a three time Grammy Award-winner who is best known for his revival of rockabilly music in the ’80s with the Stray Cats and swing music in the ’90s with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. He is widely known for his blinding guitar work. He was given a Gibson lifetime achievement award in 1999, and in 2014 he was asked to donate a replica of his 1959 Gretsch 6120 “Stray Cat” guitar to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
His prowess as a player has made several genres of music accessible to new listeners, and he talked about why he enjoys performing Christmas music.
“The songs are classic songs,” Setzer said. “It isn’t like you’re stuck with a bunch of lemons to work with. They’re great songs, and for some reason people like the way I do them.”
The orchestra, Setzer explained, has added a piano to the previously 18-player lineup this year, and he called the band one of a kind.
“They’re the top, top musicians,” Setzer said. “I let those guys blow a solo, and it blows me away. It’s a very enjoyable band to bring out.”
“Rockin’ Rudolph” is a collection of newly arranged Christmas songs that Setzer and the orchestra have never delved into. The album includes highlights like “Rockabilly Rudolph,” “Yabba-Dabba-Yuletide,” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” as well as several other swinging versions of holiday classics.
Setzer talked about taking songs people know and love and making them something that displays his creativity and style.
“It just has to happen to you,” Setzer said. “You can’t think about it too much. You don’t want to make the song unrecognizable, but on the other hand, if I want to play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” the original way, it’d be like the Gene Autry version, the cowboy song.”
The rockabilly composer explained how his version of Rudolph came about.
“Rudolph, I just started playing on stage one day on a sound check, and I played this rockabilly … ‘chuga-chuga, chuga-chuga … Rudolph,’ and I made it in a minor key, so right away that’s right down Brian boulevard,” Setzer said. “That’s Rudolph in a hotrod going down a dark alley.”
The Brian Setzer Orchestra will go on at 8 p.m. on Nov. 25. Ticket prices range from $46 to $66, and tickets are available by visiting www.kirbycenter.org.
Setzer said the set list for this year’s tour will be a surprise as he is unsure of what songs from the new album will replace tunes from previous tours.
“I’m still kind of grappling with it, because to drop songs at this point … I can’t drop ‘Rock This Town,’” he said. “I can’t drop ‘Jingle Bells.’ It’s hard to decide what to lose and what to put in.”
The enthusiastic frontman, who recently put out an album of rockabilly originals called “Rockabilly Riot,” said although the holiday tour features predominantly Christmas music, other songs make their way into the set.
“I do a little breakdown in the middle of the set, and because I have a piano this year, I’m going to throw some stuff in the middle that’s not Christmas related, just some fun rockabilly stuff,” Setzer said.
He also addressed the experience of leading a band as big as the orchestra.
“It feels like you’ve got a locomotive behind you,” Setzer said. “It’s awesome, and it’s so musical.”
While Setzer said the experience of playing with the band throughout the whole set, he noted a song he particularly enjoys playing during Christmas tours.
“There’s always favorites that you look forward to playing,” he said. “It’s usually something based around the guitar, something I can wrangle a new solo out of. I really like “Angels We Have Heard On High,” because it’s such a hodgepodge. My gosh, that song’s got everything in it. We’ve got a choir in there. We’ve got me playing a Buddy Holly, ‘I Fought The Law’ lick, and then I play some melody chords … That’s a lot of fun.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or [email protected]