Ian Corbridge reports back on the iconic rock n’ roll trio the Stray Cats, featuring original members Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom as they strut their rockabilly tunes once more on their 40th Anniversary tour as it stops off in Manchester.
The Stray Cats are on the prowl once again and are now celebrating 40 years since their inception. My first live encounter with the band was in Manchester in 1989 and there was little doubt then that they had firmly established themselves as torchbearers for a whole generation of rockabilly fans who were intent on keeping that free spirit alive and well. They pioneered a somewhat unexpected rockabilly revival in the 1980’s drawing significantly on influences in both music and fashion from a previous generation. 30 years on from that and it is evident that none of the passion and drive has diminished in any way, and thankfully neither have the quiffs, but without doubt the polish, slickness and pure musical ability has increased exponentially with experience. Over that whole period, there have been many years of downtime for the band as they pursued other projects, solo or otherwise.
It is now 15 years since the Stray Cats last played in Manchester, a period extended due to the ill-fated events of the 2010 tour when Slim Jim Phantom had the misfortune to break his wrist in London the night before they were due to play in Manchester. But we did have a Brian Setzer solo tour in 2011 and a Slim Jim support slot for the Damned in January 2018 both of which comprised a fair sprinkling of Stray Cats numbers and certainly kept the flame burning brightly.
But tonight we have the real deal, live and proud and rocking all the way as they walk on to the sound of Eddie Cochran over the PA, their original architect and mentor, without whom none of this might even have been possible. With their first album for 26 years having been released earlier this year, ingeniously titled ‘40’, the band now have a wealth of excellent new material to add to their set. And with the album drawing very strongly on the very roots which gave birth to the band, with more than a nod to the classic surf sounds of Dick Dale, the new material segues seamlessly into the older classics.
The opener, Cat Fight (Over A Dog Like Me), is the first song on ‘40’ and is an instant classic, setting the tone for the night perfectly. Then the heat really gets turned up through Runaway Boys and a great take on Gene Vincent’s Double Talkin’ Baby. New songs Three Time’s A Charm and Mean Pickin’ Mama are certainly not out of place either side of the swagger that still exists throughout Stray Cat Strut. Gene & Eddie follows on and there is absolutely no doubt what that song is about. The band, and the audience, are now in full flow and you now realise this is what the Gretsch was made for, and Brian has quite a few of those on the show tonight. Put that alongside the primitive sounds of Slim Jim’s sparse drum kit and the rock solid bass lines from Lee Rocker’s double bass which keep everyone in line and you have nothing short of perfection.
Following more guitar riffs which plunder the Dick Dale songbook, we get Lee Rocker on vocal duties on new song When Nothing’s Going Right and Bring It Back Again from the Blast Off album some 30 years earlier. In between those we get a storming version of (She’s) Sexy + 17 which sees Setzer playing on top of Rocker’s bass for a song which, alongside Fishnet Stockings which follows later, hark back to a different and perhaps more innocent era, but which still stand the test of time.
More songs from the back catalogue keep the mood, tempo and high energy going until we get to the set closer of Rock This Town, their biggest hit, which totally brings the house down and prompts an overwhelming response from the adoring masses. There was no doubting that the band were having as much fun as we were and all that translates into one amazing evening. Of course we get an encore as the band rip through Rock It Off, another stand out track from ‘40’, Built For Speed and a thundering Rumble in Brighton which proves to be the grand finale. The 90 minute set was a pure celebration of a classic genre of music which proved beyond all doubt that the Stray Cats are strutting with a very big spring in their step and long may that continue. Brian apologised for taking so long to return and promised it would not happen again. Past form suggests that cannot be guaranteed, but we can but hope!
Also worthy of mention are The Living End who proved to be a very able support for a band who are clearly their heroes too. They brought their fusion of rockabilly, punk and hard rock all the way from Australia, replete with their own double bass, with the clear intention of having fun and it certainly warmed the crowd up as the anticipation for the main event built.
All words and photo by Ian Corbridge, you can find more of his writing at his author profile.