Review: Brian Setzer – “Rockabilly Riot! Vol. One”

Browsing the aisles of your friendly neighborhood Tower megastore, it’s easy to feel as if more half-hearted tributes and opportunistic covers comps saturate the market than works by the original artists to whom radio-rotation fixtures supposedly pay such breathless homage.
Even in cases where one can put aside the glow and gleam of surefire financial gains, it’s a bizarre state of nostalgia, more than occasionally nostalgia partly for nostalgia’s sake. Far from the scope of a Library of Congress outing or the attentive, often-respectful documentary style of an Alan Lomax anthology, it can resemble so much wallpaper on the wall.
But the early rock revivalist and guitar-slinger Brian Setzer manages to somewhat miraculously side-step many of these pratfalls on his latest Surfdog collection, a 23-song set paying tribute to the vintage rockabilly of early- to mid-1950s Sun Records.

How does the man and his cohorts do it? Well, mostly by reprising the trajectory of his own musical career through the rumblings of rockabilly and early rock ‘n roll, which he faithfully recreates on the 59-minute disc.

Far from sounding like a reductive primer on the genre, the first volume of the presumably multi-disc Rockabilly Riot! really fleshes out the argument that rockabilly was one of the more vital pop mutations of genre-forms American musicians have created in the last 50 years.

On display in the carefully selected set are all the colors and contexts that made/make rockabilly such a vital sound. There’s high-octane early rock (the raucous “Peroxide Blonde in a Hopped Up Model Ford,” the album-opening “Red Hot”), country and western romps (“Just Because,” “Glad All Over”), blues (“Rock N’ Roll Ruby”), and soul-infused R&B-rock (“Mona Lisa,” the Fats Domino flair of “Lonely Weekends”), not to mention enough hot-rod mannerisms and strutting to make Mr. Link Wray look downright sedated.

Setzer and company seem to pull off the material, quite simply, because they display an unusual respect for the worlds in which it was created and the sonic furnaces in which it was forged.

The liner notes (from Setzer) carefully detail the attention the musicians paid to period details, from the understated flourishes of original drum lines and acoustic guitar rhythms to the style of rockabilly piano to the use of an old Gretsch duo-jet guitar pumped through a tiny amp.

Anyone who speaks so passionately about the need to avoid canned echo or digital effects clearly has some respect for the original material, but Setzer takes that respect a step further, really injecting the songs with a period flair that’s tough to trace merely through the specifics of production. In short, he nails the rough-and-tumble energy and 90-proof swagger of the form, and that’s often a sound that would do the Reverend Horton Heat, no stranger himself to the adrenaline of rockabilly, as well as an electric blues aficionado like George Thorogood proud.

The disc also provides a mostly unprecedented evaluation of the influences behind a specific musician by the musician himself. Rather than getting bio-pic canned ruminations on the importance to Setzer of blah-blah-blah, the musician himself peels back the foundation to give listeners and fans a look at his roots, and it’s an interesting spectacle.

Setzer played more than a passing role in the late-90s resurgence of swing, but much of his career has been dedicated to reviving the venom and sway of rockabilly, and this collection really serves as a useful kind of corollary to that mission. On it, we see Setzer paying tribute to the Perkins and Cashes of the Sun era but also showing by example how much this strange American music defined him as a musician.

The music on this disc isn’t Setzer’s own – and many recordings will, possibly consciously, drive you to seek out the originals – but his guitar tries to convince you otherwise. And that, alone, is worth a trip in the rumble seat down memory lane. – Delusions of Adequacy, Aug. 29, 2005


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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