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Twangs for the Memories
30 Years After They Started, Rockabilly Icons the Stray Cats Prepare Their Final Strut
By definition, the reunion tour has to precede the going-away tour. This model has worked for many groups, but the Stray Cats are cutting out the middleman by combining the two. Yeah, they performed approximately 30 shows last year opening for ZZ Top and the Pretenders, but that was hardly what fans have waited for since the rockabilly trio's previous headlining tour in 1992.
The group (singer/guitarist Brian Setzer, bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom) worked full-time from 1978 to 1984, but they've made rare appearances since. They played the annual Hootenanny festival in 2003 and toured Europe the following year, which makes their only stateside show at the Pacific Amphitheatre Tuesday all the more special. The one-off is a warm-up gig before returning overseas for the beginning of a farewell tour currently scheduled for Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It's strange, but it fits with the agenda used by the group since their inception in New York three decades ago.
"We're just not a band that really ever plans anything too well," Rocker says. "We do things that feel right. It's never been calculated. We're three musicians who get together and play. We never had a plan of how to do things right."
Setzer issued a statement in February that said there are no other musicians he'd rather play with than Rocker and Phantom. He went on to mention how he hopes the farewell tour allows him the opportunity to finish the band the way they began, i.e., playing their brand of rockabilly. But such inactivity for the past two decades begs the question: Why officially close the door on something that hasn't really been open for so long? Thankfully, the bassist has an answer.
"We started 30 years ago," Rocker says, "and we're starting to feel like it's the start of wrapping it up. I think it'll be a long goodbye, with a potential U.S. tour next year."
But that's not to say the members of the Stray Cats haven't been active. Since 1990, Setzer has led the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a 17-piece big band known for their swinging renditions of otherwise-stale Christmas songs; Rocker has been a solo artist who plays close to 100 shows worldwide each year; Phantom has led a roots-rock trio called Dead Man Walking and plays alongside Motörhead singer/bassist Lemmy Kilmister in an amplified rockabilly group called the Head Cat. These busy schedules act as a double-edged sword for the threesome. On one hand, constant activity means chops are maintained. On the other, three conflicting agendas mean not much time for Stray Cats practice. This might affect the chemistry between other reunited acts, but Rocker says the history behind his group allows them to pick up wherever they left off.
"We get a couple of rehearsals," Rocker says. "Before tour, we talk and e-mail about what songs we want to do. We'll come up with that last and come together to bang them out. We spend more time on those kinds of things because it's really easy to slip back in, because it's the foundation for all of us. It's where we started. We know how to work together."
Although it might not be obvious on the surface, one can draw a direct line from the Stray Cats to contemporary rockabilly scenes worldwide. The trio's "Rock This Town," "(She's) Sexy + 17," "Stray Cat Strut" and "Rumble in Brighton" re-introduced tattoos, pompadours, walking bass lines and Gretsch guitars to a music community in the midst of punk and disco. They set a foundation for arguably every roots-revival act that followed. Each time a guy runs grease through his hair or a girl dons a poodle skirt, the Stray Cats' music is present, especially in Orange County, where Rocker has lived for nearly 20 years. This week's show is special for fans who want to see the band, but it is also meaningful for Rocker, who lists OC as one of the top three spots in the country for the Cats' brand of music. But that's not what separates this gig from others.
"My guest list is much larger," Rocker says, "and my phone rings a lot more."
The Stray Cats perform with Joe Ely and Hot Rod Lincoln at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-1870; www.ocfair.com/pa. Tues., 7 p.m. $49.50.