The Brian Setzer Orchestra

Montreal International Jazz Festival 2010:
The Brian Setzer Orchestra on the TD Stage

Photo: Dario Ayala/ The Gazette

Here's a little bit of heresy for you: Montreal International Jazz Festival organizers might say they set the bar high last year by getting Stevie Wonder to preside over their opening blowout, but the Brian Setzer Orchestra proved themselves to be a far more appropriate choice to stir up 150,000 festivalgoers than the Motown legend. Last night, Setzer and his 17 rocking co-conspirators topped Wonder's uneven marathon performance last year in every conceivable way.

It was an event for the books, as Setzer and band delivered a consistently exciting set, defined by blistering guitar and horn hijinx, on the TD stage of the Place des Festivals. The weather was perfect, the showmanship at its peak, the sound was superb and the staging --- firework arc motifs dominating the lighthing and 50s-styled dancers spotlighted in the crowd --- eye-popping.

Colleagues John Griffin and Mark Lepage have already reported on the show (read their account here), so I needn't go into huge detail. What I do want to mention is how a few things Setzer yesterday during a brief press conference at La Maison du Festival, the jazz fest's headquarters, echoed in my head as I watched him rock the big outdoor stage like it's never been rocked.

For starters, it's a stunner to see 18 musicians rock so hard, as they did repeatedly --- notably on manic chuggers like Trouble Train and the deathless, highly appropriate Rock This Town. Other large ensembles have tried and failed, by virtue of their sheer size. Asked about that, Setzer had a disarmingly simple answer. "Most big bands don't really approach it from the guitar point of view," he said. "And the guitar leads the orchestra, so it's gonna rock, because that's what I do," he said.

Which brings us to Setzer's guitar playing. Whether buzzing it up on his Gretsch hollowbody during Honey Man (a rockabilly Flight of the Bumblebee) or burning up the fretboard on the Santo and Johnny classic Sleepwalk, with the orchestra carrying the melody, Setzer's inventiveness on the instrument somehow never gets talked about enough.

During the press conference, Setzer gave some credit to his first guitar teacher, an old Italian gent his parents picked out of the phone book. "Thank God I got him, because he would do things that no one else would do," Setzer said. "He would pick me up at my Little League game, sit there and wait."

Eventually, the baseball games were overtaken by rock n' roll. Setzer's idol was Eddie Cochran. "He's my greatest inspiration," Setzer said yesterday. "When I saw a picture of Eddie Cochran, I said `Wow! I want to look like that guy!' I thought he was the coolest thing. And when I heard his music, it was like a double knockout punch." When he later heard his father sing along with the Beatles' version of Honey Don't, Setzer said, he discovered it was a Carl Perkins song and that much of the early Beatles and Rolling Stones records were rockabilly inspired.

The orchestra's legendary appearance at the 1995 Montreal International Jazz Festival also came up when Setzer met the press. "That first Montreal show was magic," he said. "We really had something to prove, and if we didn't prove it, the band would fall apart, because it's so big."

At that point, he said they were selling a new musical idea. "The big band era died and rock n' roll was born, so the two never got to meet," he said. "And where it's led now ... there's no one more surprised than I am."

--- Bernard Perusse ---

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