April 1999

Stray Cats - Struttin' Live
Big Ear Music EAZ 4005
Released: 1999

by Bruce Bassett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality **1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]During the early '80s, the Stray Cats ascended to the top of the American pop charts. This commercial success was in some ways surprising, as their music was the antithesis of the new-wave sound that dominated the airways of the time. Apart from the finely coifed dos with copious amounts of hairspray, there were no other similarities to be found. The ‘Cats were bopping to a rockabilly beat and introducing a whole new generation to the honest brand of rock’n’roll that was promulgated by the likes of Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in the nifty '50s. This music was a stark contrast to the oft-contrived and synthesized sounds of new-wavers.

Struttin' Live captures the Stray Cats at various live performances throughout their career doing just what they did best -- struttin’. Brian Setzer’s vocals swoop and flutter, falling, at times, somewhere in between the highly emotive Elvis and similarly styled, but more subdued, Vincent. His fat-cat Gretsch-guitar sound and Berryesque riffs reaffirm that this is the music of the '50s, regardless of when it was actually written or performed. Slim Jim Phantom rolls, rims and finesses his snare drum, filling the drumscape to the extent that a larger drumkit would be superfluous. And Lee Rocker, whose upright-bass playing deftly defines the Stray Cats’ sound, finger walks up and down the fretless neck creating the mood of a hungry alley cat on the prowl.

By all that’s been said so far, one would think we had the making of a superb Stray Cats’ collection. Not quite. Unfortunately, the tracks are piecemealed together and the continuity of sound and ambiance are lost. As each song ends and another begins, the sound often changes dramatically. A cozy theater gives way to a reverberating hall; a laid-back sound fades out and a bright, up-front sound carries on. For example, on "Stray Cat Strut," the ‘Cats' signature song, the sound is laid-back, warm and befitting of the manner in which the tune saunters and builds to the chorus. At the other end of the spectrum -- and this is the most extreme example -- "Be-Bop-A-Lula," a classic Vincent tune, sears the eardrums with the sounds of a seemingly clipped recording replete with wildly fluctuating levels and piercing dollops of feedback.

On a curious note, I wonder why hits like "Rock This Town" and "She’s Sexy and 17" didn’t find a home here. And on an even more curious note, why did the same version of "Please Make Up Your Mind" find a home on Struttin' Live twice?

For Stray Cats fans, Struttin' Live contains some memorable performances, including "Stray Cat Strut," "Fishnet Stockings," the tribute song "Gene and Eddie" and the bluegrass salute to Flatt and Scruggs, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Many of these same versions are available on previous releases, but without having heard all of them myself, I can’t comment on how the sound quality compares. For those curious about Brian Setzer before he became the proud owner of a neo-swing orchestra, or those simply interested in becoming familiar with the Stray Cats, I suggest starting with the band's US breakthrough release, Built for Speed, as a point of reference.