Review: The Stray Cats - Live at Rockpalast

As a seminal rockabilly band who blazed a trail for roots rock in the time of disco, The Stray Cats have always been as cool as Elvis, Gene and Eddie, but with an added punk rock edge. Songs like Stray Cat Strut and Rock This Town made an indelible impression on pop culture, sounding nothing like anything else that was getting commercial radio airplay at that time in the USA, and the image of these rockabilly cats--looking like a 1950s version of Walter Hill's The Warriors--was the stuff of pure rebellion. 

Stray Cats: Live at Rockpalast turns back the clock to two unique live shows, one from Cologne in 1981 and another from Loreley in 1983. Both shows are presented in their entirety on CD and a region free DVD and were recorded for Germany's long-running Rockpalast TV series, which introduced Europeans to countless rock acts. Though the two concert performances presented in this release are only two years apart and there's a fair bit of overlap in the setlist, they really couldn't be more different. 

The 1981 show in Cologne finds a young band with something to prove. Their first album had been released earlier that year, but their second album was still forthcoming and superstardom had yet to knock on the door of Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker, and Slim Jim Phantom. They put on a show for a few hundred hostile club patrons that feels as if it could derail at any moment. Setzer, just 22 at the time, has a heap of bleach blonde hair stacked on his head that somehow, even when mussed (as it frequently is) looks effortlessly cool. He's dressed for battle, not a photoshoot. 

What follows is a show that's rooted in the punk rock scene and that feels raw, wild, and very dangerous. Setzer thrashes across the stage like a man possessed, wielding his guitar as a weapon of destruction, and destroy it does. Between songs, the band swigs beer and whiskey. The sweat pours out of them in equal measure as the music, and by the time they get to their final encore, the crowd has not only been converted, they're chanting the band's name. "Look at me once, look at me twice, look at me again and there's gonna be a fight," Setzer crows, and all believe him. 

The 1983 Loreley show is a different animal entirely. Setzer, Rocker, and Slim Jim tear through their set list with the savvy of a band that's now been hardened and polished by thousands of road miles. The act that felt experimental and tenuous two years earlier has been crystalized through endless touring; they know exactly where to play to the crowd, when to have them sing along, and how to leave them wanting more. The band in 1983 is confident, and maybe even comfortable. They've got hits, they're making money, and thousands of people are there to see them. There are moments of looseness: occasionally a few people from the massive festival crowd manage to get right in front of the stage and start dancing. Setzer and upright bassist Lee Rocker walk down to meet the fans and play a bit, capitalizing on the photo op (it made the cover of this collection) while also making sure never to let them get too close. 

Clad in orange striped slacks and a new hair color that definitely feels ready for MTV, Setzer comes across like an old pro as he tears through the hits up to that point. In addition to the expected songs, he also plays a tune on the banjo (!) and rips through a couple of covers with surprise duet guest guitarist Dave Edmunds that include George Jones' "The Race Is On." Setzer's showmanship and virtuosity is on full display during the show, but it feels like we're watching a well-oiled machine. The whiskey and beer has been replaced with water and Coca-Cola. As good as the show is--and it is very good--it feels as if something has been lost. 

It's great to have the audio document of both shows on CD, but I'm so thankful for the DVD so that we can actually see with our own eyes the progress the band made in such a short time, certainly in terms of audience size, but also in terms of how refined they'd become--which is bittersweet. 

Live at Rockpalast captures a band that I love at two wholly unique periods in their career and comes highly recommended. 


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