- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2005

Brian Setzer

Rockabilly Riot Vol. 1: A Tribute to Sun Records

Surfdog Records

Short of plunging into the history of Memphis’ Sun Records, the Stray Cats or the science of reverb amplification, suffice it to say that “Rockabilly Riot” is an album Brian Setzer was well-poised to make. The swing revivalist’s semihollow-body guitar has been ringing with these greasy licks for more than 20 years.

“Riot,” out today, promises to be the first of several tribute collections from Mr. Setzer as he mines his musical influences and strips them for parts. It will be hard to top this one for fealty to source material and sheer manic energy.

Before he recorded these 23 tracks (obvious favorites such as Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” as well as what Mr. Setzer describes as “very obscure gems”) in Nashville, the roots-rocking orchestra leader assumed the role of archivist, meticulously researching the recording techniques and instrumentation of the original tunes and charting their musical components.

Abjuring modern digital technology in his quest for ultranatural echo, Mr. Setzer recorded his guitar solos — they’re characteristically smoking — through an amp placed in a 19th-century water cistern outside the studio. On the speedy shuffle of Ray Harris’ “Lonely Wolf,” Mr. Setzer’s Gretsch guitar tones sizzle so hotly they could have burned through the cistern floor and found groundwater.

Backing musicians include upright bassist and Brian Setzer Orchestra vet Mark Winchester, drummer Bernie Dresel and honky-tonk pianist Kevin McIntree. The combo shakes, rattles and rolls effortlessly on Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Real Wild Child” and Jack Earls’ “Slow Down” and digs hard into essential Perkins numbers such as “Glad All Over,” “Put Your Cat Clothes On” and “Boppin’ the Blues.” (The late Mr. Perkins’ sophisticated style is a big part of what made the Sun Records rockabilly sound so distinct, so it’s a good thing Mr. Setzer gave the pioneering guitarist his due here.)

The listener will be pardoned for asking: If they’re so darned faithful, what do Mr. Setzer’s takes have over the originals?

Mr. Setzer’s answer is that there’s just enough of himself in the tracks to restore their zing while preserving their authentic flavor. He’s right: “Riot” is loose, youthful and yet schooled enough to pass muster with purists. There are a few bonuses, too: Mr. Setzer’s bark is leavened by legendary singers the Jordanaires on Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekends.” The set also includes a never-recorded track by Sun Records legend Gene Simmons (not to be confused, of course, with the Kiss bassist) — the more-rock-than-rockabilly “Peroxide Blonde in a Hopped Up Model Ford.”

The proof is in the listening. Cue up “Riot.” It defies you to sit still.


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