Brian Setzer: my best and worst gigs ever

16th Jun 2014 | 14:01

Brian Setzer: my best and worst gigs ever
Brian Setzer: my best and worst gigs ever
Rockabilly star Brian Setzer remembers his best onstage moments... and one that wasn't.

Continuing our series My Best And Worst Gigs Ever, rockabilly superstar Brian Setzer talks about two shows that stand out in his mind as being the greatest he's ever played – and one that wasn't so much.

“Of the best shows, they go from small to big. From an ego standpoint, there’s me as a young guy getting lit up by the audience. It was of the first shows with the Stray Cats at a club in London called Dingwalls. We hit that town and were just knockin ‘em dead.

“Half of the people in the club were punks, the other half were rockabillies, and you could literally draw a line down the middle. They were elbowing each other too, because they didn’t like each other. But the punks liked us, so it was cool.

“There was a pole in the middle of the stage too, so you had to move around it while you played. And Slim Jim came out wearing his Massapequa gym outfit. Remember those things? They had the shorts and you had to write your name across your ass. Our school had an American Indian as our logo. So instead of trying to look all cool with a black leather jacket or something, he put on a Massapequa gym outfit. I couldn’t believe it – it was just the best. I don’t even know if they knew what it was over there in England. But the show was incredible, and the crowd went wild.

“The other show that sticks out for me was when I did three nights in 2012 at the Hollywood Bowl. We had the fireworks and the 100-piece orchestra and the whole bit. To do three nights at such an iconic venue with a huge orchestra behind me was just remarkable. Hearing the strings behind me, I got teary eyed – you know, these guys are playing my songs! Sixty thousand people, 20,000 a night – that’s pretty cool.

“The big shows can get kind of nerve-wracking, though. When you’re playing to those large audiences and you’re the headliner, it’s a lot to think about; there’s a lot on your shoulders. Hats off to U2, man – I don’t know if I could handle that kind of pressure every night. We did a giant show in Montreal in front of 125,000 people. I went, ‘My God… ’ It can get to you.

“And you know, there’s so many things that happen before you hit the stage: The plane is late, your luggage didn’t arrive – there’s 100 different things that can go wrong. But you know, once I get up on that stage and I hear the sound of my guitar and it sounds good, the jitters kind of melt away. ‘OK, I can hear myself. The guitar sounds good. I can hear everybody else – this is gonna work!’ So it always comes down to the sound.

Brian Setzer: my best and worst gigs ever
Brian Setzer: my best and worst gigs ever
Setzer on stage with Stray Cats members Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom (from left) in 1983.

“One show pops to mind that didn’t work out so well. It was the Calgary Stampede in Canada, and it was in this big rodeo circle. The Stray Cats had just hit and we made it up to Canada, and I was sick, man. They had us running around like dogs, and truth be told, we weren’t helping the situation back then – not living right and stuff – and I just felt terrible.

“My nose was running and my head was all stuffed up, so before the show I took an antihistamine to dry up. It was just like taking NyQuil – it knocked me out. But I’m thinking, ‘Oh, boy, there’s 10,000 people out there.’ I couldn’t wake up, so I started drinking coffee – and coffee and coffee and more coffee. I just knocked it back. I got up on stage and the place explodes, and I was about to shout out ‘Hellllo, Calgary!’ You know what came out? A yawn. [Laughs] The crowd just looked at me like, ‘What?...’

“Needless to say, the gig was less than stellar. We pulled it off somehow, I think. You know, you’re sweatin’ bullets up there; you took something that you thought would help, but it ended up making things worse.

“It’s weird sometimes: Some nights you think you had a great show, but for whatever reason, the audience just doesn’t respond; other times you might think, ‘I just didn’t have it tonight, whatever,’ and the audience is going crazy. A lot of times it comes down to the sound on that stage. If I can hear myself well and the room sounds good, it’s gonna be a good show. Old theatres with wood stages sound the best because I use that wood to resonate the band. But when you’re outside in the middle of a field, you’re on a piece of plastic that’s bouncing, it can sound like mud. So I like the old places – you can really work the room.”

Brian Setzer's forthcoming album, Rockabilly Riot: All Original, will be released August 12th on Surfdog Records. Stay tuned to MusicRadar for an extensive interview with Setzer about the new set.

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