Stray Cats, from left to right: Lee Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom (Photo by Russ Harrington)
From the balcony, in a rickety old theatre in Rochester, New York. That’s where I first saw the Stray Cats perform, back in 1984. And when they started rocking, that balcony pitched up and down in a way that probably should have concerned us a bit more. But it was college, we were cool, and the band left us little choice — you couldn’t have sat still for this one. I walked into that show all those years ago a casual attendee, and left a dedicated fan.
This Tuesday’s performance at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center was no less energetic and inspiring. The crowd on the main floor was on its feet throughout, hands waving and hips swaying. Occasional glances at the Filene Center’s balcony section revealed an inexplicably large number of seated persons, ironic because it is a MUCH more stable structure. But alright. Thirty-five years later, I can accept that there might be some wobbly knees in the crowd.
The band hasn’t mellowed though, as they reunite for this tour, celebrating the 40 years that have passed since their inception. One of my memories from Rochester in ’84: After the opener, 14 Karat Soul, left the stage, the set-up for the Stray Cats was shockingly simple. I’d seen Thomas Dolby in the same theatre, and his group could barely fit all the gear on stage. The same stage seemed enormous in comparison to the Stray Cats’ stripped down instrumentation: Two amps, a standup bass, a crazy-simple drum kit (kick/snare/hihats/cymbal), and Brian Setzer’s guitar. I remarked on it to a friend, and he said, “That’s all you need to rock.” That trio, with their bare bones gear, almost brought down the house that night.
It was the same setup tonight at Wolf Trap, and the same infectious energy from the band as well. Just Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker, and Slim Jim Phantom on stage for the entire set, and they killed it. Okay, I think they brought out a floor tom for one song, but that was it. Set decorations? Their logo on the backdrop and two garbage cans. (A tip for aspiring roadies: This is the tour you want to be on. The Vegas style light-up backdrop probably required more road cases than the backline.)
I’ve been lucky enough to catch the last two Christmas shows by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and that’s a much more elaborate shindig, what with the bandstand, the horn section, the keys, the whole works. Both presentations work amazingly well, and both rock just as hard, but they’re a study in contrast. Brian Setzer Orchestra always features some of the more memorable Stray Cats hits, along with their review of big band boogie and Christmas tunes. BSO played at The Anthem in downtown DC last winter, and tunes that made it into the sets both that night and this one included “Gene and Eddie,” “Fishnet Stockings,” “Runaway Boys,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and (of course), “Rock This Town.”
On Aug. 13, there was an ample selection of tunes from The Stray Cats’ new LP “40” (Their first new album together since ’92), including the opening song “Cat Fight (Over a Dog Like Me),” as well as “Three Times a Charm,” “Mean Pickin’ Mama,” and “Rock It Off” (the first encore.) Bassist Lee took the lead vocals for a tune he wrote for the new album called “When Nothing’s Going Right, Go Left” (sounds like a great theme song for the 2020 election), as well as “Bring It Back” from their 1989 release “Blast Off.” The title track from that album also made it into the set, along with two selections from the 1992 LP Choo Choo Hot Fish (“Lust n Love” and “Cry Baby”).
Stream 40 by the Stray Cats on Spotify:
So what about some classic Stray Cats from their earliest records? The band did not disappoint.
The Stray Cats played all the MTV hits mentioned above, as well as “(She’s) Sexy and 17,” and (pleasant surprise) “I Won’t Stand in Your Way.” Other gems included “Double Talkin’ Baby,” “Built For Speed,” and “Rumble in Brighton” (The last two being the second and third encores.)
Brian Setzer played tribute to surf guitar legend Dick Dale, who passed away in March of this year, with a rendition of his signature tune, “Misirlou. There was one more song that really made my night: The band’s rendition of Ricky Nelson’s 1961 single “My One Desire.” I know it’s delusional to think a band at a live show is playing a song just for you because “Like . . . they know that’s my SONG!” But I let myself be a little delusional with this one, as their version (from their import-only debut record) has always been a favorite. In fact, I included it in a very aspirational mix tape a while back, so it was a kick to dance to it with the recipient.
… WOW, Stray Cats, that was a real gone show! Don’t miss ‘em when they come to rock your town!