It couldn’t be a stranger — or more appropriate — time to unleash a live album. But listening to the Stray Cats’ new offering “Rocked This Town — From LA To London” (out Sept. 11 on Surfdog Records), there’s an immediate gratitude to be transported back to the space of live music again. Hearing the roaring echoes of audience applause tucked between Brian Setzer’s crisp howls and slick strumming, the plucking of Lee Rocker’s upright bass and the rat-a-tat-tat of Slim Jim Phantom on the drums is one of the most raw and visceral listening experiences to be had in 2020.
“We really wanted to capture this tour,” says frontman Brian Setzer of the event that was years in the making. The trio who famously and stylishly put rockabilly back on the charts in the ’80s with zingers like “Stray Cat Strut” and have had a tumultuous run of stop-and-starts ever since had not played together in at least a decade. But as the band’s 40th anniversary approached in 2019, Setzer and “the boys,” as he affectionately refers to them, decided to give it another go with a surprise American-European tour and a brand-new album, appropriately called “40,” their first LP in 26 years.
“People sometimes think it’s some great thought-out process and honestly it started with baseball,” says Setzer, laughing, when discussing how the reunion took shape. “Me and Slim Jim love baseball and we were talking to each other about the standings, and Slim Jim came right out and said, ‘You know we have an anniversary coming up, we have to commemorate this.’ And it snowballed from there. First it started with putting together the gigs and then we figured we needed some new songs to play.”
The red-hot classics are all included on the 23-song collection — “Rock This Town,” “Runaway Boys,” “Rumble in Brighton” — but there’s also a selection of fresh material with tracks like “Cat Fight (Over a Dog Like Me)” that are so tight and trademark Stray Cats, it feels like they never skipped a beat.
“It’s a funny thing what happened. It was right in front of me,” says Setzer about finding the chemistry with Slim Jim and Lee again so many years after forming in the Long Island neighborhood of Massapequa in ’79. It was there that they united over a love of early American rock ’n’ roll like the Sun Records legends and found an early following playing hallowed halls like CBGB.
Though he’s spent the off years cultivating other projects like his swing revival group The Brian Setzer Orchestra, he wasn’t expecting the types of crowds that came out for The Stray Cats.
“I didn’t expect the numbers, I really didn’t, or that we had so many songs that people knew and would sing along to,” he admits, at one point on the album admitting to the crowd the band shouldn’t “have waited so long” to get back together.
The guitar aficionado, who recently launched a shop with Chicago-based instrument resale site Reverb to give fans the chance to buy his personal collection, has a signature line with Gretsch Guitars and calls his most prized possession a ’56 Gretsch White Penguin. “It’s a real plum,” Setzer says.
That retro swagger has permeated all aspects of Setzer’s life and drew him to music in the first place. Having long been hailed as someone who has brought swing and rockabilly back to the modern consciousness, he says what drew him to the styles was that “it’s based on real music. … Rockabilly was this mixture of blues and country. It came from Chicago guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and also the country guys like Hank Williams and George Jones. When they got back from World War II, they had all this free time and they were hearing all this stuff on the radio, hearing Chicago blues, country, even jazz. And that inspired them to actually come up with this new sound. I don’t even know if they realized they were doing it.”
Setzer, who’s recovered from the tinnitus that sidelined his Christmas tour late last year and has been riding out the pandemic by writing more material and riding his motorcycles, says he’s anxious to get Stray Cats shows going again and revive that raw sound on the live album in-person.
“I miss live music just as much as the fans,” he says. “I miss the interaction both with the audience and with Jim and Lee. That’s what it’s all about for me. I play music, that’s what I was put here to do.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.