Walter Tunis: Brian Setzer Orchestra makes merry with holiday favorites

Contributing Music WriterDecember 6, 2012 

The Brian Setzer Orchestra performs its own brand of holiday favorites Friday night at Singletary.



    Kenny Vaughan and Sam Lewis at Willie's Locally Known: The first thing that grabbed you was the tone: clean, buoyant and complete. It ran through every blissfully tasteful note Kenny Vaughan conjured out of his guitar. What took over after that was this veteran Nashville picker's profound sense of taste.

    Oh, he could soar, shred and reel off the warp-speed runs with the best of them. And there were instances during the Buck Owens-style Country Music Got a Hold on Me and a set-closing cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky when Vaughan worked himself into an instrumental lather and unleashed an arsenal of instrumental firepower that would do any guitar hero proud. But there were far more instances where he settled into a subtle rhythm and embraced a fluid, unflashy blues shuffle (Freddie King's Sidetracked), a leisurely rock stroll that touched upon the psychedelia of American Beauty-era Grateful Dead (Chuck Berry's Memphis) or a sense of rich nocturnal soul that recalled Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac (the original instrumental Mysterium).

    Vaughan proved a highly serviceable vocalist as well throughout the 80-minute set. But this was a show to savor for its design alone: the way it gave a proven Nashville pro a playground of stylistic possibilities to take advantage of. In terms of tone and tunefulness, he made each musical accent he hit upon shine in way that was as authoritative as it was effortless.

    As was the case with two previous Willie's visits in June and August, Vaughan's trio did double duty. The guitarist followed his own set by providing the instrumental backdrop for Nashville songsmith Sam Lewis.

    Possessed with vocal colors that occasionally sounded like mid-'70s James Taylor, Lewis' compositional preferences for R&B-flavored folk and country leaned more to the music of Georgia songsmith Randall Bramblett but without the latter's Southern imagery.

    Songs like Southern Greek Tragedy, Reinventing the Blues and a funk-flavored reading of Bob Dylan's To Ramona were all engaging, especially when Vaughan chimed back in with a wholly different encyclopedia of roots-driven solos.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Totsy

7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the University of Kentucky Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. $45, $55, $65. (859) 257-4929.

Angels We Have Heard on High done as a back-alley rumble dished out by the Bobby Fuller Four? The Nutcracker Suite compressed into an eight-minute swing fest? You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch serving as a cool rockabilly coda to Stray Cat Strut?

Collectively, these instances can point to only one thing: a holiday performance by the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

A punk-era rockabilly revivalist who hit creative paydirt during the early '80s heyday of MTV, Setzer called in the troops and took on the swing game in the '90s. In place of the lean, trio sound of the roots-infatuated Stray Cats (the band responsible for the 1982 hit Stray Cat Strut), the guitarist, vocalist and song stylist formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra at the dawn of a fashionable swing music revival.

The revival itself was short-lived. But as the Setzer Orchestra entered its second decade, something curious happened. It discovered ways to inject the sounds of swing, jump blues, rockabilly and more into holiday music. Since 2002, the group has released five Christmas albums (two studio works, one live album and two anthologies). On Friday, Setzer brings his 18-member orchestra to Lexington for the first time.

Along with the Los Angeles band Totsy, which self-describes its music as "burlesque pop with a '40s throwback," Setzer is billing his ninth annual holiday tour as a "Christmas extravaganza." Who are we to disagree?

Local treat

It's record release time for The Other Brothers. The longstanding Lexington band celebrates the arrival of its sophomore album High Life 'n' Leisure with a performance Friday at Cosmic Charlies, 388 Woodland Avenue. Recorded locally by Brian Pulito at Nitrosonic Studios, High Life 'n' Leisure is a diverse mix of country reflection, Americana sensibility and alert pop and rock craftsmanship. Dylan LeBlanc opens the performance. (10 p.m. $8. (859) 309-9499,

Roots royalty

The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour closes out 2012 on Monday with a bill of rockabilly and blues royalty.

The taping will feature the return of the long proclaimed "Queen of Rockabilly," Wanda Jackson. A defining force in rockabilly thanks to late '50s hits like Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad, Fujiyama Mama and Mean Mean Man, Jackson, who is 75 but forever ageless, is touring behind a series of recent albums, the newest of which is the fine 2012 set Unfinished Business, produced by Justin Townes Earle.

Also on the bill will be Shemekia Copeland, who inherited the title of "Queen of the Blues" at the Chicago Blues Festival after the death of the great Koko Taylor. The daughter of the late guitar giant Johnny Copeland, the singer has issued a new album, 3313, produced by Oliver Wood of the heralded contemporary jam/blues combo The Wood Brothers.

As always, reservations are a must for WoodSongs tapings. (6:45 p.m. $15. (859) 252-8888.

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