The Long Island-born trio is touring again to celebrate its 40th anniversary
Celebrating four decades as the world’s most-popular exponent of the 1950s genre that blended R&B and country (then considered “hillbilly music” in some precincts) that is one of the DNA building blocks of rock ’n’ roll, the trio came out firing on all cylinders and pretty much stayed in fifth gear throughout the 22-song rave-up.
Though the Cats’ format of choice features an ultra-stripped-down sound (guitar, stand-up bass and drums) and songs whose three-chord structures tend toward the repetitive, the unit somehow managed to keep the set engaging and fresh—a testament to the members’ substantial instrumental prowess, their ability to create hook-laden material and their engaging, high-energy stage presence. All of Saturday night’s songs were performed with hairpin precision and an infectious joyousness that proved a temporary salve for the horrific events that played out in El Paso earlier in the day.
The focus as always was lead singer/guitarist Brian Setzer, long one of rock’s most lethal guitar slingers. Setzer’s vocals were consistently clear and expressive, and his fret work — unenhanced by any type of electronic effect—was sharp, economical and acrobatic.
But let’s not forget Setzer performed his magic on a table set by his two bandmates.
Bassist Lee Rocker, who turned 58 Saturday, animated the songs with sometimes slinky, sometimes booming, boogie-woogie lines and plenty of visual stunts, including his trademark move of wielding his large instrument as if it were a much smaller bass guitar. And Slim Jim Phantom—whose insistence on standing at his (relatively small) kit is his visual signature—was always locked in rhythmically with Rocker, which allowed Setzer to play his fleet-fingered role to the hilt.
As for highlights, it’s probably easier to pick those tunes that weren’t quite as sharp and satisfying. Among the many songs that stood out were a raucous “Gene and Eddie,” their salute to rockabilly progenitors Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran; a rough-’n’-tumble “Blast Off” propelled by an irresistible descending-chord, count-down refrain; “Fishnet Stockings,” into which Setzer inserted the world-changing solo from Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock;” “Misirlou,” an homage to the late surf-guitar deity, Dick Dale and the smash hits “Stray Cat Strut,” “Sexy and 17” and “Rock This Town.”
Early in the show, Setzer asked the audience, “Are you guys ready for a little rockabilly?” and added, “I think we’re just the guys to do it.” To which can only be added: Well, duh.
One final note: Kudos to Rachele McCall, Ocean’s recently named director of entertainment, for implementing an idea as brilliant and helpful as it is obvious: Patrons who pick up their tickets can view a timeline sheet sitting on the box office counter that shows when the door opens, when sets begin and end.
This is something that should be universally adopted.
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