Whether or not you like him, you can’t deny Brian Setzer’s dedication to ‘50s-era American music. After a stint with the obscure new wave band Bloodless Pharaohs in the late ‘70s, Setzer began exploring and exploiting his love of rockabilly with the highly successful Stray Cats. Despite recording at the height of the new wave era, the Stray Cats scored a number of hits in the early 1980s, including “Stray Cat Strut”, “Rock This Town”, and “(She’s) Sexy + 17”. After the band’s breakup, Setzer briefly dabbled in roots rock on his initial solo releases, but he never completely abandoned vintage music, portraying rocker Eddie Cochran in the 1987 film La Bamba and occasionally reuniting with the Stray Cats. Setzer could have eased into performing on the oldies and rockabilly circuits, but instead he pulled off a surprising self-reinvention in the ‘90s: With his Brian Setzer Orchestra, the pompadoured singer/songwriter/guitarist mixed jump blues, swing, and rockabilly into a potent musical brew. The band scored a hit with a cover of Louis Prima’s “Jump Jive an’ Wail” in 1998, and has continued to release albums and tour with regularity. The change in direction proved Setzer’s talent and reestablished him as a force in the music business, but sometimes the more raw approach he took earlier in his career was missed. Thankfully, Setzer didn’t lose interest in straightforward rock ‘n’ roll, returning to it on a 2001 release credited to ‘68 Comeback Special, and his 2003 solo album. Now Setzer mines one of the sources of his inspiration with a tribute to the legendary Sun Records label.
Sun, as any music buff knows, was the training ground for several rock ‘n’ roll and country greats, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and Roy Orbison. Sun founder Sam Phillips also recorded a number of impressive blues and R&B sides, including Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket ‘88’”, featuring Ike Turner on piano and sometimes credited as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Sun’s standing among music aficionados is rock solid, and with a slew of Sun recordings on the market, the label is unlikely to slip into obscurity anytime soon. Setzer’s assertion in the liner notes of Rockabilly Riot! that rockabilly is an overlooked genre and that the average person doesn’t know “Blue Suede Shoes” seems overblown, but at any rate, his desire to keep this type of music alive is strong and his heart is in the right place. The 23 songs Setzer covers date approximately from 1954 to 1957, two years before his birth. Some are famous, like Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Carl Mann’s “Mona Lisa”, while others might prove more obscure to the mainstream audience.
Setzer seemingly approached the project as a musical purist. Recording in Tennessee, his band used vintage microphones and created echo effects with an old water cistern. Drummer Bernie Dressel studied and played his parts exactly as they appeared in their original form, and Setzer mostly approached his guitar parts the same way. In another bid for authenticity, Setzer recruited legendary vocal group the Jordanaires as backup singers on “Lonely Weekends” “Flatfoot Sam”, and “Stairway to Nowhere”. The reverence toward the original material makes it somewhat copycat in nature, but the songs don’t sound exactly the same as the Sun releases on which they are based, of course, because they were recorded by different musicians in a different setting. A good example is Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm”. Setzer mimics Cash’s guitar style, but his own more modern sound creeps in, and he doesn’t even bother trying to imitate Cash’s trademark booming voice. In fact, Setzer’s vocals are what make all of the tracks sound like his own, and while some critics aren’t crazy about his crooning, I for one have always found it technically adequate for the material and distinctive enough to be engaging. Even if there aren’t any revelatory moments, there are a number of standouts on the disc, including “Sweet Woman”, “Real Wild Child”, “Just Because”, and the haunting closer “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache”.
An album of rockabilly covers isn’t necessary or surprising this far along in Setzer’s career, but that’s of little importance. This album is a labor of love, plain and simple, that will appeal to fans of the artist and the material, but without revealing anything new about either.