Stray Cats – Live at Rockpalast
starring Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker, Slim Jim Phantom
MVD Entertainment Group
Between 1981 and 1983, three young men from New York went from a niche rockabilly act to full-fledged rock stars. Now we have a chance to glimpse those times, thanks to video footage of Stray Cats from Rockpalast, the German popular music television show, first in 1981 in a small club and then in 1983 in a huge open-air venue. The bundle contains both live performances on DVD and the same performances on two CDs.
If you are used to seeing Brian Setzer – the elder statesman of rockabilly – in the current century, I imagine the first thing you will say when the performance starts will be, “Whoa! They look so young!” That’s what I said. That’s also what my wife said. Once you get past the timeslip, Setzer grabs you with his guitar. I know he doesn’t make the lists, but after seeing these performances, I consider Setzer one of the all time great players out there. As a youth, he was intricately picking that huge hollow-body Gretsch, through fast and slow song alike, always on target but never overly flashy. Now, with over thirty years more experience, his playing hits at another level.
Setzer plays that blistering lead without a rhythm guitarist to ground him. Like his rockabilly heroes, he relies on the sparsest rhythm section to support him – a stand-up double bass and a three-piece drum kit – and they do not disappoint. Lee Rocker attacks his bass alternately as a stringed and as a percussion instrument, plucking and slapping along to the beat driven by Slim Jim Phantom standing at his drums. All of your favorite songs are here, and many are understandably duplicated between sets: “Rumble in Brighton,” “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town” are all on both shows. “(She’s) Sexy +17” is a highlight of the 1983 show. But the real show-stealers for me were the covers on that show, including the George Jones hit “The Race Is On” and the Buddy Holly classic “Oh Boy.” The Crickets would definitely be proud.
The concert footage is amazing, especially when you consider the age. The video, while not high definition, is crisp and clear; you can see individual droplets of perspiration while Setzer works the fretboard. The audio is high quality, but occasionally the mix seems off, with the bass overpowering the vocals. This footage really highlights the presence of these three young men. While we are used to seeing lead guitarists and frontmen wow the crowd with stage antics, both Rocker and Phantom use their instruments as props for impressive acrobatics that never break rhythm. Other neat visual cues are when Setzer gives Phantom a beer during one of Rocker’s bass solos, or when, after Setzer jumps into the crowd near the end of the set, Rocker tops him by taking his bass into the crowd. But all of the individual moments are just a backdrop to the overall comparison of the crowds between the two sets. We start in a small dark club in 1981, filled with seemingly apathetic Germans who could care less about the band until “Rock This Town” is finally played, when they finally wake up. The band is so surprised by the ensuing cheers, that their second encore requires them to plug back in before they can begin playing. Compare that to the 1983 show in a large open venue, where the crowd is already frenzied when they start playing and just gets wilder as the show goes on, especially when special guest Dave Edmunds shows up to jam near the end. The video really captures the growth the band experienced in that short time. That said, I’m not the kind of guy who re-watches concert videos a lot. The inclusion of the concerts on CD is perfect for just that reason. Now I can keep these performances with me wherever I go, and picture the shows in my mind (unless I’m driving).
My main complaint about the set is with the structure. On the DVD, the first title is the 1983 show, and the second is the earlier 1981 show. Likewise, Disc One of the CD set is 1983, and Disc Two is 1981. It’s counter-intuitive, to me at least, to structure the shows in reverse-chronological order. It’s not like the 1983 show is a well known historical event. The only result is confusion if you aren’t paying attention to the dates. On the whole, it’s a minor quibble about an impressive set that I recommend for any fans of this influential early ’80s band.