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The Stray Cats - Meijer Gardens Amphitheater (Grand Rapids, MI), August 15, 2019

19 August 2019

Forty years onward, the Stray Cats still strut.
Story and photo gallery by Phillip Solomonson.

As the Stray Cats near the end of their 40th Anniversary Tour this summer, there is much for fans to celebrate. This summer, band will release its 10th studio release appropriately titled 40. All three original members are together. The band can bask in the glory of having revived rockabilly for generations of music fans in the ’80s, and the band’s own songs have stood the test of time.

The Stray Cats still have the same pedal-to-the-metal energy as ever. Slim Jim Phantom high-kicked and climbed while swinging his arms Pete Townshend-style on his stripped-down, stand-up drum set, featuring only the essential elements of snare, kick drum and two cymbals. Lee Rocker muscled his double bass as he dropped, dragged, straddled, slapped and swung it with mastery. As the musical fever rose, so did Brian Setzer. Atop Rocker’s double bass, held to the floor as Rocker abused it wickedly, Setzer loomed above the stage and the crowd. All of these antics unfurled while never missing a beat. Judging from the band’s interaction with each other and the fans, the Stray Cuts were having big fun on the prowl.

Notable was Setzer’s guitar playing. Shining through were the subtleties of his jazz and swing-based solo career. Between the straightforward, blues-rooted pentatonic scale, Setzer went beyond his descending fretboard flourishes and tremolo bar bends with jazz runs that rivaled Django Reinhardt.

What is forever mesmerizing is how effortlessly the Stray Cats command a sound bigger than other trios, much less those with bare bone instrumentation and three voices.

Adding smart wardrobes, a huge suspended 50’s style can-lettered sign with mascot logo, and a few weathered tin trash cans, fans were transported to the origins of rock and roll and the heyday of icons like Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Dick Dale. The stage design was perfect presentation.

The nineteen-song set began with the opening track from the new 40 album, “Cat Fight (Over A Dog Like Me)” and closed with enduring single “Rock This Town.” During the show, the band paid tribute to its influences with 1989 single “Gene & Eddie.” The song began with Setzer, Rocker and Phantom, arm-in-arm at the edge of the stage singing Vincent’s acapella “Be-Bop-a-Lula” before the hard-downbeat intro. Fan favorites such as “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” “Runaway Boys,” and “Stray Cat Strut” were highlights. Another fun track from 40, “Mean Pickin’ Mama,” was also introduced.

After the three-song encore of “Rock It Off,” “Built for Speed,” and “Rumble in Brighton,” Setzer, Rocker and Phantom took their bows and lingered on the stage as Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” played on the sound system. It was a moment to bask in the mutual graduate with fans huddled up front. How does it get better than that?