SAN FRANCISCO Decked out in a red sequined suit adorned with blazing flames, ex-Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer slid onto the Fillmore stage Thursday night with a grace and a presence that can only be described by appropriating a line from one of his biggest hits.
He's got cat flash, and he's got cat style.
Backed by his namesake 16-piece orchestra, Setzer shimmied and shimmered through a string of rockabilly and swing numbers, kicking off things with "This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof," from the Brian Setzer Orchestra's Grammy-winning The Dirty Boogie (1998).
Fans jumped to their feet and attempted to swing dance despite the tight squeeze of a full house. Halfway through "The Dirty Boogie" (RealAudio excerpt), Setzer began soloing on his guitar, beginning a back-and-forth duel with one of his trombone players, each trying to outdo the other.
Before the next song started, a female backup duo dubbed the Vixens joined the band. Like props on pedestals, dressed in slinky black gowns, they moved seductively in time with the music. For the sensual, low-key "The Footloose Doll" (RealAudio excerpt), off the group's recently released Vavoom!, the duo joined Setzer front and center, singing and slithering on either side of him.
Taking it down a notch, the lights went down while a lone spotlight lit Setzer and five saxophonists as they launched into their cover of "Gloria," a doo-wop ballad originally recorded by '50s band Cadillac.
"Alright. We're gonna surf through this one," Setzer said just before "Drive Like Lightning (Crash Like Thunder)." "You ready? I got the silver sparkle guitar. You know what that means!"
Throughout the night Setzer slid his fingers along the guitar strings so casually that the audience may have forgotten the complexities of his playing. But with nearly each new song in the set, Setzer alternated from one Les Paul to another, demonstrating the importance of the guitar's lead role.
Shortly after the midway point of the set, Setzer, the stand-up bass player and the drummer began a stump-the-band skit.
"Let's see if they know this one!" Setzer said before playing the beginning riffs of Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else." Within seconds, the other two bandmembers jumped in to round out the sound.
"Here's one I don't think anyone knows," Setzer said sarcastically before strumming the Stray Cats hit "Rock This Town" (RealAudio excerpt), sparking a frenzy in the crowd.
Migrating further into older, familiar territory, Setzer turned to a trombone player and asked whether he had the sheet music to "Stray Cat Strut" (RealAudio excerpt). The trombone player jumped up and shouted, "Let's strut!" as the band kicked in.
Nearing the show's end, the group's take on Louis Prima's "Jump Jive an' Wail," off The Dirty Boogie, gave the crowd yet another song they could all sing along with. Halfway through, the music stopped and the orchestra led the crowd in a hand-clapping routine that vibrated the building. After declaring, "This band is Cadillac!" Setzer and company burst back into the swing standard with renewed energy.
"I didn't think the orchestra would sound so amazing live," concertgoer Jason Cottis, 23, of San Francisco said. "The sound was a lot better that I thought it would be. Brian Setzer puts on a great show."
The band returned for an encore that included Setzer's take on the classic instrumental "In the Mood," renamed "Gettin' in the Mood" (RealAudio excerpt).
Opening for the Brian Setzer Orchestra were Sean Kennedy and the King Kats, a Santa Cruz, Calif., four-piece rockabilly outfit. The highlights of their set included a cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and a stand-up bass player who could strum while holding the bass on his shoulder.