Inspired tribute or the most shameless form of rip-off?
That's a question that dogs any artist determined to explore the musical legacy of an era long gone. But for guitarist Brian Setzer, it has been a career-defining conflict.
First it was his antics as frontman for '80s-era rock 'n' roll revivalists the Stray Cats that divided critics, who couldn't agree on whether the trio (featuring stand-up drums, acoustic bass and Setzer doing his best Eddie Cochrane shtick) was a progressive re-invention or a hopeless gimmick.
Now, after an aborted solo career and even shorter-lived Stray Cats reunion, Setzer has re-emerged, working the sounds of a bygone era once again _ this time, at the helm of his own 16-piece big band orchestra.
"I didn't go into this looking at it like a novelty," Setzer says in press materials for the orchestra's latest album, Guitar Slinger, perhaps reading the minds of skeptical rock critics the world over. "I didn't know how many records we might sell or gigs we might do. But I knew this was musically valid."
Those who heard his 1994 debut with the band might disagree. Filled with tepid covers of jazzy lounge tunes, the self-titled album proved that the Brian Setzer Orchestra was possibly cooler in concept than in reality.
"The record deal came so quickly, I didn't have time to write an album's worth of original songs, and I was still putting the musical pieces of the puzzle together," Setzer says.
"This was even harder than usual, because we had no reference point. If you want to do a punk band, you start with the Sex Pistols. But these were basically jazz musicians and I couldn't explain a rock gig to them."
Fortunately, a 50-city tour welded the band into an impressive unit, the fruits of which are plainly evident on Guitar Slinger. Veering from energetic covers of tunes like Stevie Ray Vaughan's The House Is Rockin' to old Stray Cats tunes like Rumble in Brighton and the Cab Calloway-inspired original Hoodoo Voodoo Doll, Setzer finds a new excitement in combining rockabilly guitar licks with a roaring big band.
Take the uptempo romp Buzz Buzz, in which Setzer holds his own with his gargantuan backing unit, referencing Mancini-style '60s cool with angular guitar lines and a powerful, layered horn arrangement. It's a setup that evokes the past while pushing into new territory.
Other song titles give away the album's revivalist intent, from numbers like Sammy Davis City and Hey, Louis Prima to (The Legend of) Johnny Kool _ evoking a collision of rockabilly style and big band cool that rarely happened in the past because of the disdain each side held for the other.
It's an idea the 37-year-old guitarist says reaches back to his days as a teen in Massapequa, Long Island, N.Y., where he would often sneak into legendary jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard and Village Gate and dream.
"What a great idea if you could get a guitar player to lead a big band," he remembers thinking. "This is about rock first. Rock in a big band, playing as loud as any rock band I've ever heard _ not jazz or swing first."
The notion resurfaced in 1992, during an impromptu jam session with some horn players hanging next to Setzer's Los Angeles home.
"They thought I wouldn't be able to keep up," he says. "Maybe the reason no one's tried this before is that you can't slide by without reading and writing music and knowing jazz chords. You have to be able to blow by these chords and play over them."
At a glance
The Brian Setzer Orchestra appears tonight at Jannus Landing, 16 Second St. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 on the day of the 8 p.m. show.