Brian Setzer Orchestra – Christmas Comes Alive (2010)

by Nick DeRiso

Brian Setzer, an unjustly unheralded guitar player, has this knack for connecting with the redux zeitgeist. In the 1980s, it was rockabilly. In the last decade, big-band jump blues.

More recently, Setzer has used that template for a series of popular holiday-themed albums. For me, though, these studio efforts have been more admirable than entirely convincing. Not so here, as the Setzer group, indeed, comes alive on a 15-song disc recorded last year during a stop in Knoxville, Tenn.

The tunes retain their typically smart arrangements, but move now into a edgier, freewheeling abandon.

Setzer in particular is a snappy rhetorician, yelping through every vocal tic associated with the 1940s and ’50s, then tearing off concise, cooking solos from across the same musical spectrum.

That’s best heard on the swinging new “Winter Wonderland,” with its winking, backseat-bingo vocal and angular guitar interlude. Setzer is just getting started. He growls through the fuzzy blues of “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” then rips a hole in Chuck Berry’s eternally fun “Run Rudolph Run” with a sharp-edged, pompadour-creating lick.

Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” is perfectly redone as a doo-wop ballad. “Jingle Bell Rock” is restored to its irony-free mid-century glory. Setzer camps up “‘Zat You Santa Claus,” the old Louis Armstrong romp, but that’s OK. Is there any other way to do this song?

Elsewhere, Setzer’s frisky and imaginative group turns even one of the most overbearingly cheerful of Christmas traditionals, “Sleigh Ride,” into a brilliant, charging jive — and that’s before Setzer tears through the solo with a dangerous hot-rod menace.

Along the way, Setzer takes some wow-man chances and, somehow, each and every one works.

Setzer melds his 1980s throwback hit “Stray Cut Strut” with “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” to uproarious cheers from the assembled fans. His 19-piece group even takes on “The Nutcracker Suite” and (no kidding) makes it crackle with a newfound get-bent sensibility.

If you haven’t yet heard this new iteration of the Sezter retro-cool oeuvre, “Christmas Comes Alive” is the best place to start. If you are already a fan, it’s is an even better place to start over.

He’s never sounded better.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.