Brian Setzer talks about Tom Petty, ‘The Simpsons’ and his third act with holiday music

Published November 22 2017
Updated November 24 2017

Brian Setzer knows heís overdue for a trip to Florida.

For 13 years, the Grammy-winning rockabilly guitarist and big-band frontman has been packing theaters coast to coast for his annual Christmas Rocks Tour. But somehow, he keeps skipping this area. Ruth Eckerd Hall has for years tried to book the blockbuster blowout, but not until this year did they finally succeed on booking a show, on Tuesday.

"We get less than two months over the season, and itís a lot of people to move," Setzer said by phone recently from his home in Minnesota. "Itís a couple of days to get everybody rolling. And I said, no, this year, itís been too long. Weíve got to get to Florida."

Holiday music may not seem like the most obvious career move for Setzer, 58, who found punk and rockabilly fame with the Stray Cats before riding the swing revival back to the top in the í90s. But itís a niche heís embraced wholeheartedly, releasing a handful of Christmas albums, all of them jazzed up with his 19-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra. During shows, he plays a selection of holiday favorites and greatest hits, and also splits off into a rockabilly trio for a few numbers.

Before Setzer plays Ruth Eckerd Hall, he talked about Petty and his careerís third act as a new legend of the holidays.

Do you have a Santa in your show?

Oh yeah. Santa comes out.

Who plays him? No kids are going to read this.

Oh, I canít tell you who Santa is. Theyíll get mad at me.

Do you have any idea how many Christmas songs are in your repertoire?

Let me see this yearís setlist Iíve been fooling around with. I canít do all Christmas because people want to hear Rock This Town and Stray Cat Strut. I canít leave out big hits. And then I canít leave out Jingle Bells, right? Itís kind of a good problem to have. And then thereís songs that I want to play. So it usually turns out to be half Christmas.

Do you still do Run Rudolph Run?

I was going to do it this year, I donít know. Iíve got a question mark on that.

I wonder if, after Chuck Berry died, itíll come back to the forefront.

Thatís funny. I break down into my little rockabilly trio set, and I have that written down. So yeah, so Iíll probably change that part of the set up. It might sneak in.

If you look back on your career, how does holiday music fit into what youíve done as an artist?

Hmm. Thatís a good question. The Christmas songs that Iíve done ó what I do these days is, I deconstruct them and put them back together. Itís not as easy as youíd think. Itís not like playing Sleigh Bells the way it was written. I have to make those things rock, and then I rent a big band truck for them. For me, those songs are so good; theyíre not trite songs. Theyíre really well-written songs. Thatís why something like White Christmas one of the most-played songs ever. I know that I have a great time when I just play the songs that I want to play in the set. That way, itís not all one thing. Yes, itís a Christmas-themed tour, but at this point, I do whatever I want.

You knew Tom Petty pretty well, right? What was the most Tom Petty experience you ever had?

When I first met Tom, we went to his basement recording studio and just jammed on old rockabilly songs all night. We recorded Sun-session Elvis and Ricky Nelson songs. And that tape was rolling, so itís got to exist somewhere.

You and Tom Petty were on the same episode of The Simpsons in 2002. You ended up with a sneaky-classic line, where youíre teaching Homer to play guitar, and you say, "Letís start with the basics: Playing a flaming guitar with your teeth." Do Simpsons fans come up to you about that?

Well, they always call me "Mr. Seltzer." Thatís my fame from The Simpsons. Actually, Dan Castellaneta said that to me in a restaurant: (imitates Homer) "Mr. Seltzer?" And itís so funny ó we grow up with Homer Simpson, and so many people do it, but you know when Dan does it, itís really Homer. You go, Whoaaa! It blows you away.

Iím sure you donít have any Christmas songs that get as much airplay as Stray Cat Strut or Jump, Jive aní Wail, but is it closer than people think? Do you have significant radio airplay for some of your holiday songs?

I have no idea. (laughs)

You donít notice any royalty checks rolling in every January that are bigger for particular songs?

I honestly couldnít tell you. Iíve always just done what I liked. If I didnít like doing the Christmas tour, I wouldnít do it. I enjoy that time of year. I love playing with that big band. And that does enable me to get the big band out there.

. if you go

Brian Setzer Orchestra

The Texas Gentlemen open at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater. $52.75 and up. (727) 791-7400.