To get 2,000 fans in a holiday mood on a warm Tuesday night in November, your Christmas game better be A-plus.
You'd better have a small forest of illuminated Christmas trees, a band decked out in Santa hats and suits of glittering emerald, at least one flurry of snow from the rafters and a jolly old fat man hurling candy canes from his sack.
You had better, in other words, be Brian Setzer.
There's a reason the Brian Setzer Orchestra's annual holiday tour, which hit Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall on Tuesday, has packed houses coast to coast for the past 14 Novembers and Decembers. And it's all to do with Setzer's unshakable commitment to his shtick, to the plasticine Formica gleam of an era that maybe never was, but that makes you feel nostalgic nonetheless. Isn't that what Christmas is all about?
Setzer, 58, this year celebrated 25 years of his swing and jump blues big band, and he still spares no expense in its theatrical presentation. Trim in a pinstripe suit and gravity-defying pompadour, he fed his 18-piece Orchestra its visual and musical identity, flicking twangy tones from a series of glossy Gretsches, an inviting smile always on his face.
Setzer's tunes, and those of his heroes, fit in well along his holiday tracks, as evidenced by how seamlessly he swung from Glenn Miller's Pennsylvania 6-5000 to Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree to the Stray Cats' Stray Cat Strut, all within the first four songs. There was a hint of the sinister in The Dirty Boogie; a little lickety-split shredding in Jump, Jive an' Wail; a dreamy, doleful melancholy in a solo version of The Christmas Song (a.k.a. "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire").
Midway through, Setzer decided to honor the late Glen Campbell and Tom Petty with faithful and effective covers of Wichita Lineman (chilling, those horns!) and Runnin' Down a Dream, whose sprint-to-the-finish solos brought the crowd to its feet.
Setzer was generous with the spotlight, spreading hot sax, trombone and clarinet solos around throughout the night. And his reimagining of traditional and classical numbers was delightful, from a chug-a-lugging cowpunk twist on Angels We Have Heard On High to a charming and whimsical rendition of The Nutcracker Suite.
But his core group of rockers impressed the most. Midway through, Setzer splintered off for a mini set of rockabilly and boogie-woogie with acrobatic bassist Johnny Hatton, drummer Noah Levy and pianist Kevin McKendree. Hatton wasn't the only one playing standing up – neither Levy nor McKendree had a place to sit, and it didn't bother them in the least. Setzer split, duck-walked and dropped to his knees on Rockabilly Boogie and I Got a Rocket In My Pocket, and climbed atop Levy's drums and Hatton's bass on Fishnet Stockings.
It was tough not to smile at Setzer's total investment in his antics. Indeed, you could flick your eyes to any member of his Orchestra at any given moment in the show, and odds are you'd see them doing exactly that. Here were a dozen and a half gleeful ex-band geeks, swaying and snapping their fingers in unison, grinning like they were living their dream lives. They honestly probably are.
That's why when fans left Ruth Eckerd Hall, fake snowflakes on their shoulders and a newfound swing in their steps, it felt like, yes, the Brian Setzer Orchestra is actually the perfect band to usher in the holiday season. He believes in the spirit he's selling, and so does everyone else. And nothing says Christmas like belief.
— Jay Cridlin