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2004-12-16

By Buddy Blue

This newspaper routinely identifies me as a "curmudgeon." Perhaps this is because my editors know that I'm about as keen on holidays as I am, say, a weeping rash. They also know that I loathe grandiose prog-metal, that I'm a cranky old Jewish person, and they understand that 47 years of relentless, nonconsensual exposure to Christmas music makes me surly as a battalion of Grinches each December.

Therefore, I can only assume that said editors were all-a-twitter with sadistic glee when assigning me a feature on Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a 60-piece assemblage specializing in Christmas-themed, prog- metal-inclined rock operas, characterized by a brand of over-baked grandiosity to make Joe Satriani blush with shame.

Happy Holidays, Buddy!

TSO is the brainchild of veteran producer/promoter/songwriter Paul O'Neill, who's worked with AC /DC, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, the Scorpions, Joan Jett, Madonna and Sting over the years. TSO's initial release was 1996's "Christmas Eve And Other Stories," followed by "The Christmas Attic" in '98. "The Lost Christmas Eve" was released in October, purportedly finalizing a trilogy. Collectively, these CDs have sold something like 982 gazillion units, and the group's annual Yuletide tours pack 'em in like the Lakers collectively endeavoring to pry themselves into a Karmen Ghia.

Pressing query for Mr. O'Neill: "Any truth to the rumor that Manheim Steamroller is looking to kick your ass?

"Umm, they're a great band, but totally different from us," he said, following a quizzical pause. "Are you a practicing Christian?" I asked. "That depends on what you mean by 'practicing,'" O'Neill replied. "I was born and raised Irish-Catholic.

I haven't been to Mass in a while, but I believe in what Christ said about do unto your neighbors as you'd have them do unto you. Are you a practicing Christian?"

"Nossir, I was born Jewish." "Well, that's okay -- Jesus was a Jew," O'Neill assured me. I heaved a sigh of relief at the revelation. "The reason I'm a Christian is that if I died tomorrow and found out that Jesus really had nothing to do

with God, I'd have no regrets," O'Neill continued. "I think just following what he said made me a better person."

Fair enough; I approve of that. I'm even starting to like this Goyishe metalhead. And, in all fairness, those pre-disposed to O'Neill's brand of deafening, extravagant Jeezo-festivity will surely obtain a bellyful of pleasure from his work.

"We try to write lyrics that stand out as poetry, we try to write melodies that are so infectious they don't even need lyrics, but when we put those two things together, it creates an alloy where the whole is greater than the parts," O'Neill explained of his muse. "We realized that the best way to do that is through the rock opera, where every song holds up individually, but woven into the tapestry of a story, it gives it a whole fresh angle. A good example is 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' from 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' It's a great love song to hear on its own, but when you realize it's Mary Magdalene singing to Jesus, it takes on a whole 'nother dimension."

Even a Cliff's Notes version of the storyline from TSO's Christmas thang would fill half the space allotted here; suffice it to say that it has something to with redemption, forgiveness and angels. Yes, angels are very popular in these times; they make for hit TV series and albums and movies and big, shiny awards; angels are perhaps even more fashionable than retarded people these days.

Meanwhile, TSO's music vacillates between original songs and traditional carols; acoustic numbers to cochlea-shredding screamers; symphonic/choral fare through the sort of material one might encounter on a Spinal Tap album; something for everyone from soccer moms to new-agers to Wayne and Garth.

So, aside from a marvelously swollen bank account, what does Christmas mean to O'Neill? He related an anecdote from his New York City childhood, wherein he and a group of friends witnessed a fender- bender between Yellow cabs on Christmas day.

"The drivers get out," he recalled. "One looks like he's a longshoreman and the other looks like he just stepped off the boat from a foreign country. We were scared because we were sure there was going to be a fight. But the first driver goes, 'Let me pay for all the damages, this was completely my fault.' The second driver goes, 'No, no, don't worry about it, this could have happened in any parking lot.' Next thing you know they're looking at pictures of each other's kids and trading jokes.

"Any other day of the year, it would have been World War III in the street. So I learned at a very young age that there was something special about this day that made people treat even total strangers a little different, a little better."

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, December 22 at Copley Symphony Hall, 750 B Street in San Diego, 7:30 p.m., $32.50 - $40.75, (619) 235-0804. >>>>>>>>>>>>>

BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue

FIVE THINGS I LIKE ABOUT BRIAN SETZER

1.) While it's exceedingly unfashionable to harbor this opinion, I loved the Stray Cays (are they back together this month or not?). The Cats re-invented rockabilly music in their own, peculiarly '80s image; performed with the muscle of a runaway train; exhibited positively scorching chops and were certainly among the greatest rock & roll groups of their era. So why is it that '80s schlock-mongers like Duran Duran and Tears For Fears are back in vogue, while the Cats widely remain viewed as a guilty pleasure? Because the average American rock fans' taste is firmly imbedded in its collective patootie, that's why.

2.) Those scorching chops I talked about? There's a good reason why Setzer's mug seems eternally plastered across guitar specialty magazines: the guy owns fancy schmancy Gretsch hollow-body guitar sound and style, whether twanging up a monsoon of rockabilly fire, slaughtering the blues in the first degree or dishing up spiffy swing licks to terrify John Pizzarrelli.

3.) You gotta give it up to a guy who largely helmed two separate musical revival movements, nearly 20 years removed from one another. Rockabilly was a moribund music form -- commercially, at least -- before the Cats resuscitated it in the late '70s. Then in the mid-'90s, the Brian Setzer Orchestra became the most successful of the neo-swing bands.

4.) Bri can sing real purty. At his best, Setzer successfully channels the spirit of rockin' Eddie Cochran with the Cats and the slick swagger of Bobby Darin with his Orchestra.

5.) Setzer's criminally overlooked "The Knife Feels Like Justice" from 1986 ranks among the finest heartland rock albums of the decade, comparing favorably to the best such contemporaries as John Fogerty, Marshall Crenshaw and da Boss had to offer.

FIVE THINGS I DISLIKE ABOUT BRIAN SETZER

1.) Okay, so it was the '80s, but the preposterous mascara-and-rouge-splashed faces, roadkill hair-dos and swishy pastel clothing the Cats favored were pretty durned hard to endure, and remain the primary reason why many people can't get past the silly image and appreciate the great music the band laid down. Setzer still sports a ridiculous mops of tresses atop his bean to this day; even more unbecoming on a man now in his mid-40s.

2.) I hate people who play guitar so much better than I that even trying to reach their level of skill seems a fool's errand.

3.) The rockabilly and swing revivals that Setzer was largely responsible for came on with such sudden, unexpected and massive impact that backlash was completely inevitable. It took years for rockabilly to recover from the repercussions - if, in fact, it ever did -- and neo-swing is still widely (and more accurately, in most cases) viewed as a lingering air biscuit that refuses to go away.

4.) Setzer lacks the powerful pipes to tackle hard jump blues, but that never stopped him from trying. When the guy sings Wynonie Harris-type numbers, it comes off like Pat Boone covering Little Richard; Jerry Quarry in the ring versus Muhammad Ali; Dubya debating Cornel West. Weak, dude.

5.) I can only assume that the relative commercial failure of "The Knife Feels Like Justice" is what prevented Setzer from turning in other, similar efforts. He seems to prefer playing it safe as a revivalist to taking further chances and creating something more unique; a grave disappointment to those of us who ponder what might have been.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra performs tonight at Pala.

In other noteworthy concerts this week, rockabilly/alt-county vet Rosie Flores plays Saturday night for Carey Driscoll's excellent, ongoing Acoustic Music San Diego series, while local jazz greats, pianist Rick Helzer and bassist Gunnar Biggs, will spread bop coolness all over the room at Dizzy's on Monday night.