Here's a holiday season story. It doesn't involve orphans finding a family, or a hazardous journey across a wintery landscape toward home, or even a savings-and-loan owner who manages with community help to cheat his way through his uncle's fiscal malfeasance. Instead, it involves the unlikely marriage of big-band swing and rockabilly music.
Last night, we went to the Gibson Amphitheater to watch the Brian Setzer Orchestra's Christmas extravaganza. The Gibson, formerly the Universal Amphitheater, is where I saw my first rock concert (with my older brother) back in 1980, when the Amphitheater was still an open-air venue. Setzer is the gent who, in the syth-drenched days of the early '80's, convinced the world that what they really needed to hear was the rockabilly music of the '50's; and consequently obtained a couple of top-40 hits with his band, the Stray Cats. In the early '90's he hit on the idea of marrying his rockabilly guitar licks with big-band swing; and founded the BSO -- complete with a stand-up bass, a rock drummer, saxes, trumpets, trombones, and female backup singers.
We sat through a fun opening act of a rockabilly band from England, which included a sit-down pedal steel guitar. (How does an Englishman get inspired to learn to play one of those?) Then, in the intermission, a gentleman slurring his words approached our seats, near the back of the amphitheater, and asked us if we'd like to be in the orchestra pit for the main act. Somewhat leery, we nevertheless said yes. He handed us two plastic wristbands and two backstage passes. "To what do we owe this blessing?" I asked, still suspicious. "It's Christmas," he replied, "and I had a couple extra." (I suspect that they had sold fewer pit passes than they expected; and gave audience members upgrades so that the pit would be full. Then again, they may just have been impressed because I wore a jacket and tie.)
We cautiously headed to the pit; and the guard waved us in. The wristbands were genuine.
We then enjoyed a fantastic concert, close enough to the stage to see every hair in the formerly-blond pompadour that Setzer had allowed to turn a distinguished silver. I'm delighted to see a band that not only masters their musical chops but also puts on a good show. Particularly wonderful were Setzer's drummer and bass player (both named John; I forget their last names). John the bass player showed off all sorts of tricks -- playing the bass (almost as big as he was) upside down, sideways, and backwards; playing it while Setzer lounged on the upper part of it; and even standing on one corner of it, balancing there while he continued to play!
Along with raucous versions of his Stray Cats hits "Rock this Town" (spectacular with a full brass section) and "Stray Cat Strut" (which morphed without breaking stride into "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"), he played the BSO versions of "In the Mood" and "Jump, Jive, and Wail"; several Christmas songs, and his reworkings of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," "Flight of the Bumblebee," and "Fur Elise" from his new album, "Wolfgang's Night Out." At the mid-point, he brought the curtain down on the big band and played several songs with just the bassist and the drummer; then, in the middle of "Route 66," he brought the big band back in seamlessly.
Afterward, our backstage passes indeed allowed us backstage, into an open-air reception courtyard (complete with hosted bar and a pile of chips on a table), where we got to chat with various band members, including the bassist and the opening act.
And to all a good night.
Update: There's a nice write-up of the Friday night concert in the LA Times. And on Sunday, we were channel-flipping when we came upon a video of the BSO's 2005 LA Christmas show on one of the high-definition channels.