The Stray Cats – Hammersmith Apollo, Thursday 19 June 2019
If you are a certain type of music fan and have actually heard of rockabilly then hearing that this trio had recorded a new album and were touring was very exciting news indeed. If like me, you are also a big fan of Brian Setzer’s guitar playing and have hoovered up all his innumerable albums over the years then it was additionally cause for celebration (C’mon Brian bring the big band over or team up with Jools Holland and his crew for a massive UK tour!). The last time the boys toured the UK back in 2008 was a bittersweet occasion for me; I had booked tickets for my cousin and myself due to our shared passion for 50’s rockabilly/early rock’n’roll (we grew up learning guitar at the same time in the 70s and bashed our way through innumerable versions of “Boppin’ the Blues” & “Peggy Sue” etc) knowing that he would be looking forward to seeing them play as much as me. Tragically, he died in a bike accident a few days before the concert at the Brixton Academy which cast a pall over the evening. Matters weren’t helped by a dreadful muddy sound on that occasion. Because of that the journey to Hammersmith had a poignant feel, added to by the realisation that I hadn’t been to the old Odeon, as was, for about 30 years, which on reflection is really weird considering that I used to go there all the time as a student and in my twenties. I suppose there comes a point when the bands that are big enough to play there just don’t represent your youthful musical taste. On arrival the absence of seats in the Stalls was a surprise, as was, pleasantly, the news that the “Selecter” had replaced the advertised support. Lead singer Pauline Black looks amazing for her age and was dressed as sharply as ever. The other original member, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson was looking pretty spritely too. They put on a good show and played the old hits, which got the full house crowd boppin’ away with some enthusiasm and built the mood nicely for the headliners.
A dickie bird told me before the show that the three members were not exactly the best of friends these days which, while not really surprising, was a little disappointing to hear. However, that did not reflect in the performance, which was simply fantastic; they rock! Of course, it was never in doubt. There’s that magic moment in most performance when the bubble of anticipation is burst by that murmur that becomes a roar as a band emerge casually from the shadows of the wings and you’re on the rollercoaster before you have a chance to catch breath. The sound was superb (it would have been criminal if it had been otherwise with only two instruments to mix plus a stripped down drum kit). Second song in we were back to 1979 and the familiar opening repetitive descending bass line and slapped drums, followed by the distinctive guitar intro to “Runaway Boys”, Brian Setzer’s guitar sound crisp and rockabilly clean, albeit souped up like a hot rod Chevy getting ready for a drag race. This was followed by “Cat Fight (Over a Dog like Me)” the opening track to the brand new, but just as good as the old stuff, album, “40”, which fitted in just fine with the old classics. From a distance the trio looked little changed from the skinny kids from yesteryear, a bit of extra timber but still able (in the case of Slim Jim Phantom and Brian Setzer at least) to wear sleeveless tops to show off their tattoos to full effect; Lee Rocker cutting a figure in a white jacket and dyed hair, and a fun pair of shades. More importantly for a rockabilly band they all have good heads of hair, Brian Setzer sporting an especially impressive construction on top. The thing about this type of music is that there’s no fat or self-indulgence, it’s all quality cuts, in and out in three minutes, crammed full of beautiful guitar picking, super-fast runs, the A-Z of rock’n’roll guitar on show from the master of the double-cutaway and the bass and drums supporting with a youthful energy. Great songs follow one after the other, “Stray Cat Strut” was thrown in early in the set, followed by “Gene & Eddie” with the whole crowd singing the chorus. Rather than play the superb instrumental “Desperado” from the new album (not an Eagles cover!) Brian introduced “Misirlou” as a tribute to Dick Dale and then proceeded to rip out the heck out of it with a – you’d expect nothing else – scorching version of the classic instrumental. Following this, he introduced Lee Rocker as the songwriter of one of the outstanding new tracks on “40”, “When Nothing’s Going Right”, which the bassist sang. As mentioned each track followed on the heels of another like chrome-covered muscle cars queueing up for a hot Saturday night drive-in, “She’s Sexy & 17”, “Fishnet Stockings”, “Rock This Town” and as a final encore (prefaced with a comment that the song was written as a tribute to their English fans) a tumultuous version of “Rumble in Brighton”. A simply stunning (and sadly too rare) performance by the rockabilly flag bearers!