Stray Cats Strut Their Stuff For Two Reunion Shows in Costa Mesa

Credit: John Gilholley

Thursday night the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa was crowded with rockabillies, rockafillys, chilli-billies, psychobillies and whatever other sub-group you can slap that suffix on.  Though the Orange County Fair is over, the venue’s amphitheater was filled with folks who lived through the first wave of rockabilly, the second wave of rockabilly, the third wave–what wave are we on now? I’ve lost count. 

It was the largest gathering of the heppest of the hep 1950s-philes not seen in this town since the last meeting of the Costa Mesa 500 at Memphis Costa Mesa in the early ’00s. What was the occasion? The Stray Cats are back, baby! 

That’s right–Setzer, Phantom and Rocker, the holy trinity of the rockabilly revival of the 1980s, the union that launched a zillion pompadours and single-handedly raised stock in Gretsch guitars and Lucky Strike cigarettes in the day, re-re-reunited this year. 

And though they’re a New York-born band (by way of UK), their appearance at the Pac Amp in Costa Mesa had deep Orange County roots. It’s no secret OC has a rich rockabilly history: Tom Ingram, the founder of  Viva Las Vegas, arguably the largest rockabilly weekender in the world, has called OC home since the ’90s and plots and plans his rockabilly world domination event from a Cypress business office–just a stone’s throw from rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran’s final resting place. And just about anybody worth their Suavecito in the rock-a-billy world has lived in, drank in and played in Old Town Orange at some point. (Not to mention we gave the world the fucking Telecaster!) 

So while it may have been a surprise to some when the Stray Cats announced via social media this spring they were reuniting after a 10 year hiatus, it wasn’t much of a surprise that they chose to reunite in just two places: Las Vegas (at Ingram’s Viva Las Vegas this April) and Costa Mesa. Not New York or UK where they have early roots, not the obvious choice of LA, not Japan (they’re big in Japan, you know). Good old Orange County, California. In 2008, the Stray Cats said “goodbye” on the same Pacific Amphitheater stage during their farewell tour. 

And so for two nights only, Thursday and Friday, the Stray Cats came to Costa Mesa to “rock this town” and that they did. They did not “rip this place apart” as their signature song goes–(they’re no longer the same twenty something punk kids that wrote that neo-swing anthem in the 1980s, and besides the Pac Amp has a strict 10 p.m. sound curfew). 

Credit: John Gilhooley

But they did deliver a rock steady beat of the hits that made rockabilly radio friendly along with tributes to the artists of the 1950s who inspired them. The band walked out to the sounds of Eddie Cochran (a permanent resident of Orange County) playing his hit “C’mon Everybody”. The trio greeted the crowd and then kicked off the set with a vivacious performance of “Runaway Boys”. 

They followed with “Too Hip, Gotta Go”, during which song actor and musician Drake Bell (Setzer produced his album Ready, Steady, Go), who sports a Stray Cats brand on his bicep, leaned over to say to the person next to him, “you’ve probably heard that solo a million times.”

Mega hit “Stray Cat Strut” came next in a bold choice of playing the hit early in the set. “Play it again at the end!” yelled a commentator in the crowd at the end. 

Though Setzer admitted to the crowd they were a little rusty, even a rusty Setzer is still a level of mastery most professional musicians aspire to. The band were tight, delivering a set with the spunk of a group of tom cats half their age. In fact, if you ask this reviewer, the only thing missing from the show was a dance floor to swing like it was 1996 again too (okay, and maybe their rendition of “Sleepwalk”). Since it was an  amphitheater show, there was no room to dance, so we were forced to rock-step solo in the confines of our assigned seating. (Shout out to the couple who took matters into their own hands and started swing dancing in the aisle and got away with almost a full song before security shoed them away like a pair of alley cats.) 

After a full set, they ended with the obvious choice of “Rock This Town” which is when all the cellphones came out (is this town really rocked if it’s not streamed on Facebook live these days?)

Credit: John Gilhooley

They came back out for a quick curfew-friendly encore, trading their sweat-soaked brightly colored gabardine shirts for a trio of black shirts. Lee Rocker rocked a black tee that proudly boasted “Orange, California” on it. 

For the first song of the encore, they played “Rumble in Brighton” as the first song of the encore, and though Mike Ness of Social Distortion was reportedly in attendance, there was no rumble in the crowd tonight, unlike Social Distortion’s performance in Sacramento earlier in the week. 

“I guess we shouldn’t have waited so long, huh?” Setzer asked the crowd at the end of the set. As the Stray Cats enter what will be 40 years of rocking and rolling towns across the world (they formed in 1979), 2018 was as good a time as any to reunite. Though there are no future dates currently lined up, we’re stoked the Stray Cats chose our backyard to host to the welcome home party.

The party continues again tonight at 7:30 p.m. with the Paladins.

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