Brian Setzer Prowls Retro Turf With His Orchestra

Singer/guitarist works big-band sound in concert, plays '80s rockabilly hits from his days in Stray Cats.

SAN FRANCISCO — Blazing into the ornate Warfield Theater on Wednesday night, the Brian Setzer Orchestra energized a full house that was too tightly packed together to step out and swing.

But no one seemed to be complaining.

As the 15-piece band broke into the set-opening instrumental "Hawaii Five-0," Setzer — sporting his trademark bleached pompadour, with plenty of roots showing — strode onstage. Carrying a dark purple Gretsch guitar, he wore suede creepers with two-inch soles and a dark purple suit splattered top-to-bottom with silver-dollar-size five-point stars.

By the time he ended his 90-minute set, Setzer was wearing a white tank-top that displayed his tattoos, calling to mind his years as leader of the early-'80s rockabilly trio the Stray Cats. Nowadays he embraces a big-band sound — and the appropriate high-style threads.

The Long Island, N.Y.-born singer/guitarist hasn't really strayed as far afield from the Stray Cats as his sizeable backing ensemble might suggest. Setzer still is frontman to a bassist and drummer, just as in the Cats, only now they've got a lot more embellishment.

Onstage, the Orchestra's stand-up bass player and drummer were surrounded by five sax players at stage right, and eight more horns — a tuba, trombones and cornets — at stage left. The horn players were dressed in identical pink dinner jackets, black bowling shirts adorned with Setzer tour logos, and black trousers. They sat behind green music stands, also adorned with the tour logo, each lit by tiny lamps tucked into little plastic skulls.

For much of the show, the horn players seemed to function as a cheering section, clapping, pumping their fists or brandishing their instruments from side to side in unison.

But Setzer was generous with the spotlight, as in "Hoodoo Voodoo Doll" (RealAudio excerpt), the second song of the performance, which featured a clarinet solo by a member of the sax section.

As Setzer posed and mugged, the ensemble segued into "This Cat's on a Hot Tin Roof," from his double-Grammy winning Dirty Boogie (1998).

After "Let 'em Roll" and an elaborate cover of the languid Santo and Johnny '50s instrumental "Sleepwalk," Setzer introduced a new song, "Gloria," which turned out to be a plaintive ballad. He called out the five sax players, who surrounded him in the spotlight as he sang the doo-wop-style lyrics of unrequited love. The song ended in a near-falsetto cry, which Setzer, who had to cancel shows earlier this year due to vocal cord problems, admitted he "wasn't sure I'd get."

But his voice generally was in robust form. He continued on through "Dirty Boogie" (RealAudio excerpt), which he played behind a silver, glittery solid-body Gretsch, then essayed another new number, this one with the chorus "Drive like lightning, crash like thunder."

Breaking into familiar territory again, the band tore up the Stray Cats' signature song, "Stray Cat Strut" — with an interlude featuring the horn players riffing on the "Pink Panther" theme — and Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive, An' Wail" (RealAudio excerpt), a track off Dirty Boogie that's garnered a lot of radio play.

Setzer then introduced the recently penned " '49 Mercury Blues" as "the first rockabilly song with a tuba."

"Rumble in Brighton," another Stray Cat prowl, soon followed. Setzer teased the crowd by invoking a "rumble in San Francisco" and a "rumble on the Bay tonight."

The band stayed in place as Setzer exited stage right.

Returning shortly, and sporting a glittery pink shirt, he went into full-swinger schmooze mode for a version of "Mack the Knife." Then he sent the crowd home with the Clash-popularized Vernon Taylor classic "Brand New Cadillac" ringing in their ears.

"The new stuff is cool, and the big-band swing thing adds a lot of class," said concert-goer Brian Racine, 26, of Novato, Calif. "But it'd be a disappointment to see Setzer and not hear any of the old Stray Cats tunes. They're classics."

Opening band BR-549 summed up Setzer's transition from Stray Cats leader to suave swinger in some ways — "Little Ramona's Gone Hillbilly Nuts," their second-to-last offering, humorously describes a onetime punk-rocker who's "traded in her Docs for kicker boots" and "only shows her tattoos one at a time."