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Setzer keeps Christmas rocking

In this Sept. 18, 2009, photo, musician Brian Setzer poses at home with his guitar in his Minneapolis condo. (Dawn Villella / Fr31520 Ap)
In this Sept. 18, 2009, photo, musician Brian Setzer poses at home with his guitar in his Minneapolis condo. (Dawn Villella / Fr31520 Ap)

For anyone who wishes the Christmas season continued past Dec. 25, Brian Setzer has you covered. The rockabilly icon brings his orchestra to the Fox Theater on Saturday with a holiday concert that will extend the yuletide spirits past Christmas Day.

Setzer’s current tour, which has been dubbed “Christmas Rocks,” is a large, multifaceted operation, and his orchestra features a whopping 19 musicians.

“It goes pretty smoothly, surprisingly,” Setzer said during a recent phone interview. “We’ve got three coaches and two semis. It’s a lot of moving around. It’s the most musical experience you could possibly have. It blows me away every night. There are so many good players in the band.”

Setzer has been at the forefront of two major swing and rockabilly revivals: His throwback band the Stray Cats scored several big hits, including “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut,” in the ’80s, and he had solo success in the ’90s with his popular cover of the standard “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” But Setzer says rockabilly has always been a part of our modern musical lexicon, having provided much of the blueprint for modern rock.

“When I first went to England, all the legends came out,” Setzer said. “I was this skinny kid over in the U.K., and Robert Plant and Jeff Beck came down to see us. Imagine that for an 18-year-old kid. They just think that music is cool. It’s always had that cool factor. Sometimes it bubbles over and becomes popular, but to me, it’s as valid as the blues. It’s always had that cache.”

Setzer says the rockabilly style lends itself well to holiday music, and he’s put out several holiday albums over the years, including 2002’s “Boogie Woogie Christmas” and 2005’s “Dig That Christmas.” His latest Christmas record, “Rockin’ Rudolph,” isn’t your typical holiday release: While it features some of the usual seasonal suspects – “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – it also boasts some out-of-left-field choices like “Yabba Dabba Yuletide,” which riffs on the “Flintstones” theme song, and “Little Jack Frost,” an instrumental cover of a little-known ’40s tune.

Setzer arranges the songs and writes all the symphonic parts himself, often in ways you wouldn’t expect. For instance, he’s adapted the choral standard “Carol of the Bells” into an instrumental, so that the traditional vocal parts are duplicated on the guitar, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has been re-imagined as a minor-key rockabilly tune.

“I totally deconstruct (the songs) and put them back together,” Setzer said. “They have to be suitable for me to take them apart. I call it ‘scuffing it up.’ I kind of take sandpaper to it; I make it more hard edged. … But all these songs were good in the first place. You don’t want to lose the beauty of the original song that people have known for, with some of these songs, hundreds of years.”

This marks the 12th year that Setzer has taken his annual Christmas tour around the country, but he says his set lists aren’t just relegated to holiday tunes.

“It’s some Christmas music, some Stray Cats songs, some big band songs,” Setzer said. “I break down into a little rockabilly trio. I have a big catalog, so I try and get in what I like.”

And it’s a tradition that’s likely to continue, especially since audiences keep coming out to celebrate Christmas with Setzer and his orchestra.

“It just keeps getting bigger,” Setzer said. “People love it. I’m really the only rock ‘n’ roll guy who does it. They’ve turned me into Setzer Claus.”

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