MONTREAL - A rockabilly lifetime ago - very early '80s, to be exact-ish - Brian Setzer and two other tattooed, quiffed-up freaks from Long Island legendarily showed up in the Gazette lobby with their equipment to play a little hit-and-run promo gig.
Attendance figures are lost to the mists of time, but one thing was certain: Here was a band that believed in the intrepid showbiz will-play-anywhere credo.
Friday night, Setzer played the biggest stage possible in a city where he's got some history (he recorded a live album here).
And he made more.
Slinging a guitar edge he's maintained and honed since bursting out of a hotrod magazine in 1981, he and his massive horn-powered army, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, hit the stage at 9:30 p.m. under a martini-glass backdrop on the Place des Festivals to open the 31st Jazz Festival with the Gretsch licks of This Cat's On A Hot Tin Roof. The weather elements were kind. And he brought the Elemental.
The six-figure crowd stretched from the new stage placement at de Maisonneuve Blvd. and spilled over onto Ste. Catherine St.
"They told me one or two hundred people would be here," Setzer told the crowd. "One or two hundred thousand people!"
And in jazz fest tradition, they came from far and wide.
Tom and Karen Lewis were in from Red Deer for the Rotary Club conference where they watched Dolly Parton work her magic. Their other reason? A traditional get-together that happens every five to 10 years with lifelong friends Steve and Jasmine Ellemo from Hudson and the Finneys from Rothesay, N.B.
"We knew about the festival and knew it was a reputable event," Karen said. "We remember the Stray Cats, and when we heard Setzer was opening, we couldn't miss it. We caught a bit of Francofolies. We love the city and so do all of our colleagues from Western Canada."
"We've kept in touch with our friends," Jasmine said, "and this is the perfect place to do it."
New Brunswick's Anne Finney said: "These guys are always bragging about the festival. We've had a festival in Fredericton for 17 years and we've been trying to get them there. This is our first time at the Montreal festival, and we're really excited about seeing Brian Setzer on an outdoor stage."
Downstairs at the Maison, a New Orleans second-line band with semi-naked boa-wearing girls and dudes tossing out beads was winding up the crowd. And Setzer set them loose.
Drive Like Lightning (Crash Like Thunder) led to Setzer's gag French and the utter Americana of '49 Mercury Blues.
And we were reminded how this huge blowout had come to pass.
Last year, Setzer had relieved Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of its roof with the BSO's set. All present had the same thought: outdoor stage!
Fest vice-president André Ménard had all the reason he needed. Jump blues, jive, horn boogie, bomp and Cab Calloway dance-floor art-ertainment fits a populist Jazz fest bill.
Cue the city-junglebeat of Sexy and 17, with twisting couples on a ministage inspiring the ladies in the crowd to let rude nature take its course.
The eye-and-ear-opener for the casual fan was Setzer's virtuosity: He's a compendium of essential American fretboard moves with a razor touch and a showman's heart. The horns are there for ballast.
He took it down for Lonely Avenue, took it up for Trouble Train, and showcased a gorgeous Sleepwalk. Exit the horns for old-school trio Summertime Blues, 16 Chicks and the homage Gene and Eddie.
Funny thing about this music: Its essential element is claustrophia, a small, enclosed room where it can combust. And yet, in the end, it isn't that far from the Gazette lobby to six figures on Jeanne Mance St.
And on this mild Montreal night, as Setzer's rockabilly licks peeled out, as the trombones, trumpets and saxes rejoined him to brass away in Stray Cat Strut and Jump Jive An' Wail and Rock This Town, Setzer exulted: "What a crowd!" The Cat was having the time of his ninth life.
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