Having photographed Duran Duran a couple of weeks ago, requesting to cover Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot Tour was going back even further into my musical past. Considering that The Stray Cats hit in the big time in 1980 and I was 8, my musical history doesn’t go a whole lot earlier. Having put in for it, it was annoying to receive an email from the promoter saying that I needed to be at The Tivoli at 8:40pm to meet the promoter’s representative for a 9pm start and that I would then be escorted from the building after the first three songs had ended. Even at venues like the The Tivoli, where it’s all general admission and even when there is seating, it’s not assigned seating (as far as I know), this sometimes happens. I can remember being really excited when I finally got to see and photograph Wilco at the same venue a couple of years ago, only to have the crushing disappointment of being turfed out on to the street less than 20 minutes after they started.
Of course when I get to the box office, there is no promoter’s representative to meet me, the box office give me a nice shiny photo pass and tell me it’s the usual first three and there’s nothing about having to leave after I’ve finished photographing. It’s annoying because had I known, I would have come in earlier to photograph Lanie Lane who was supporting. If there are no photos of Lanie Lane from this tour, you’ll know why.
It’s a really mixed crowd tonight, from greasy rockers in their 50s, making the best of what hair they’ve got left, all the way to heavily tattooed girls in their 20s in the latest Kustom Kulture threads. As would be expected, it’s a lot more of a pleasant and appreciative crowd than were here a couple of weeks ago for Bon Iver.
Obviously having been told not to get there until just before the start, there’s not long to wait. Disappointingly Setzer starts out with as a trio, with a double bassist and a drummer but one that doesn’t include Stray Cats’ drummer Slim Jim Phantom. The set is divided into two (set of newer material followed by more of a greatest hits set), with a different bassist and drummer for each half (plus a guitarist/pianist for a number of songs) and the whole group playing on stage towards the end of the night. As Phantom isn’t on stage until the second half, there’s no chance to get any photos of him playing his minimal, stand-up drum kit and no opportunity to get any photos of the two ex-Stray Cats playing together.
From the very first note of the evening, one thing is clear: Setzer can really play guitar. It’s astonishing as the band sound massive and then you keep releasing that there’s only three of them on stage and only one guitarist. And, on top of that, he just makes it all look so easy and effortless. I guess having been brought up with the Stray Cats on Top Of The Pops you just never expected him to be complete artisan of his instrument. He creates a sound, all these licks, riffs and solos, with such a sweet, classic rockabilly guitar tone, but it hardly looks like he’s even moving his fingers. He walks around the stage, has jams and duels with bassist and drummer stands on the edge of the stage,playing to the crowd and just looks like he’s having the best time. As with when I saw Jim Jones Revue earlier in the year, I’m left wondering if this was what it was like in this 50s and help explain why rock ‘n’ roll took over the world. He segues one song in the first half into Folsom Prison Blues, to the rapture of the crowd, and does a pretty good Johnny Cash vocal, noting afterwards that he wouldn’t have been able to hit the low notes five years ago.
At end of first half he exchanges his beautiful green Gretsch guitar for what he calls his ‘Stray Cat’ guitar (another Gretsch but with a natural finish), asking the crowd if anyone has $100 bucks for the first guitar, adding that he’ll take Australian Dollars as they’re worth so much more than US Dollars. If only this was a world where you could buy vintage guitars for $100. The second half brings out Slim Jim Phantom and a different double bassist. He introduces the band at various points during the night and I’m sure he mentions that the bassist for the second half is from Melbourne. He looks familiar and watching him keep wondering if he was the bassist for Zombie Ghost Train (I look it up after the show and he’s called Chris D’Rozario but plays for a Melbourne band called Firebird and was never in Zombie Ghost Train, who were a Sydney band anyway).
With Slim Jim behind (and at times all over) his stand-up drum kit, the second half of the set is the greatest hits set and the band personnel that that the majority of the audience have probably come to see. All the big Stray Cats songs are played – Stray Cat Strut, Runaway Boys, Rumble In Brighton, Sexy & 17, Fishnet Stockings as the last song of the main set and the first encore of Rock This Town, as well as a few standards such as Great Balls of Fire. Watching Phantom play, it’s the same as Setzer in that he honestly looks like he’s having a great time. It’s always really endearing when you see people who have played together for years and played the same, old songs for such a long time and seeing that they look to still be really good friends and still look to really enjoy playing songs they’ve been playing for more than 30 years. The way they play those old hit singles is as if they’d only written them yesterday and are giddy with excitement to be playing them to an audience for the first time.
Setzer and Phantom leave the stage during the middle of Fishnet Stockings, leaving the two double bassists to have a ‘bass-off’ before Setzer carries out a third double bass to join them, indicating to the audience how much his fingers hurt at the end, before the band goes back into the song. With the full accomplishment of musicians on stage for the encore of Rock This Town, there’s much playing of guitar and double basses behind heads and playing stood on drum kits and balanced on the basses themselves. They really know how to do entertainment, which they drag out into a a faux-ending and second encore, spending a few moments on stage looking like they’re deciding whether they should and whether they could play one last song, Setzer doing a “one more” finger plea to the crowd to the obvious roar of approval. Unknown to the crowd, the “one more song” (Seven Nights To Rock) is listed on the bottom of the setlists taped to the stage floor. Consummate entertainment industry professionals to the very end.
Having decided not to put into cover BluesFest this year, after the trials, tribulations and great expense of going for the last two years, tonight’s show, and the thought of a second chance of seeing them, is making me wonder whether I made the right decision. if you’re heading to BluesFest make sure you go and see them.