The Stray Cats undertake their first U.S. tour in 15 years

by Jon Bream

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

1 August 2007


Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom could not agree. Just how much rehearsal would the Stray Cats need for their first U.S. tour in 15 years?

“A good solid week,” drummer Phantom said last month from his home in Los Angeles before rehearsals started.

“Just two days to pull a set list together,” said singer/guitarist Setzer from his home in Minneapolis. “This doesn’t need all the rehearsal. It’s still the three of us in the garage.”

Well, at least they agreed on one thing: They are glad to be back on tour, especially with Rock `n Roll Hall of Famers ZZ Top and the Pretenders.

Most of the shows on the six-week tour, which started last week, are sponsored by JACK radio stations—a format that plays an unpredictable mix of oldies and newer music. Both Setzer and Phantom admit tuning in to JACK.

“I listen to JACK and ... then all the satellite stations; I’m on a blues kick,” said Setzer, 48, who moved to Minneapolis a couple of years ago with his new Minnesota-bred wife, Julie.

Phantom, 46, thinks JACK Fest is a great formula for a tour.

“There’s got to be 30 songs there that everyone knows off the top of their heads,” he said, sounding like he’d buy a ticket himself if he weren’t playing. “These are bands that have stood the test of time.”

Always big in England where they got their start, the Stray Cats reunited in 2004 for a monthlong European tour. “We realized this band is great,” Setzer said. But the rockabilly revivalists needed the right offer for a U.S. reunion trek—“not a rinky-dink club tour.”

Setzer didn’t hesitate about this summer’s package. When asked about pecking order, he told the organizers: “Let ZZ Top close and let Chrissie (Hynde and the Pretenders) go in the middle. We’ll open the show. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with any of that.”

It turns out that the Stray Cats “have a history” with the Pretenders, as Phantom put it.

“Chrissie Hynde and the original guys were one of the first people to ever come and see Stray Cats in little pubs when we started out in London,” said Phantom, noting that Hynde also was an American making music in England. “She brought Ray Davies (of the Kinks) down to see us. And we opened up some shows for the Pretenders before we even had a record deal.”

Phantom has a shorter history with ZZ Top front man Billy Gibbons, who sometimes hangs out at the Cat Club, the Hollywood nightclub that Phantom owns and operates.

Formed in the late 1970s by Long Island school buddies Jim McDonnell (Slim Jim Phantom) and Leon Drucker (aka Lee Rocker) with guitarist Setzer, the Stray Cats struggled on the New York scene. So they moved to London, where producer Dave Edmonds discovered them and helmed their 1981 U.K. debut featuring the hits “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.” But neither that album nor the ensuing “Gonna Ball” caught on in the States.

After the trio returned to New York in 1982 and released “Built for Speed” (a compilation of its first two discs), MTV gave a major push to “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut,” now considered rock classics.

In 1984 Stray Cats broke up because Setzer didn’t want to move to California. “It was just silly childish stuff,” he said.

In `86 the Long Island boys with the pompadours regrouped for a covers-dominated disc, “Rock Therapy,” which fizzled. The trio did three more albums plus an additional collection of covers before calling it quits in 1996.

All three Cats work in other bands. Bassist Rocker, who released his first solo album in 1994, tours with his own quartet. His next solo CD, “Black Cat Bone,” is set for Aug. 14.

Phantom drums with three other combos—his eponymous trio; the Head Cat (with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister), and Dead Man Walking (with the Alarm’s Mike Peters).

Setzer’s main gig is the Brian Setzer Orchestra. For their next album, he is “taking classics and making them swing with my guitar on them.” For help with arrangements, he turned to Hollywood veteran Frank Comstock, who had arranged the “Nutcracker Suite” that Setzer recorded a few years ago.

Recorded in Minneapolis and Hollywood, the CD is expected in September. Setzer also plans another Christmas tour with his orchestra. And he has a special gig in November, playing in the house band—with Jimmy Page, no less—for a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis at the Rock `n’ Roll of Fame.

“That’s an honor,” he said in an understatement.

With his plate full, Setzer isn’t even thinking about doing a new Stray Cats album.

“We haven’t spoken about recordings,” he said, adding that the trio cut one studio track (“Mystery Train Kept a Rollin’”) for a live CD of the 2004 British tour. “I don’t know what Stray Cats means in 2007. I don’t know if it’s something people want.”

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