A Stray Cat's new home

Brian Setzer made rockabilly and big-band music cool again. Now let's see what he does in his adopted hometown.

A few days into the sessions for his next album, Brian Setzer already can name at least one experience unique to his adopted home state.

While setting up last week at Pachyderm Studio -- less than an hour's drive south of the Twin Cities in woodsy Cannon Falls -- the former Stray Cats frontman noticed a furry little tail sticking out of a coffee mug he had set on a ledge.

"They've got a bit of a chipmunk problem here," he said with the smirk that helped make him an MTV star in the early 1980s and again in the mid-'90s.

But Setzer -- who now lives in Minneapolis -- was clearly content working close to home, in the secluded studio where Nirvana made "In Utero." During a break in recording, the 47-year-old rock vet proudly showed off his vintage amps and two new, custom-built Gretsch guitars, painted with the same colors he used on his 1932 Ford hot rod: Candy Tangerine and Lime Gold. He also showed off the lyrics to a new song he thought us locals might like: It's called "Hennepin Avenue Bridge."

The one new item Setzer couldn't seem to stop gushing about, though, was his new wife.

A Twin Cities native and former singer with the Dustbunnies, Julie Setzer (nee Reiten) is the reason one of rock's great modern vintage players moved to town from Los Angeles. The couple married last summer, bought a loft in downtown Minneapolis last fall and have been living here mostly on a full-time basis.

After months of getting a feel for the place, Brian Setzer is ready to -- you guessed it -- rock this town. With his band from Nashville already headed to town for the sessions, he booked them a gig Wednesday at one of his favorite new hangouts, Lee's Liquor Lounge, which he likened to "your uncle's finished basement."

Talk about a welcoming reception: The Lee's show sold out before the promoter had time to take out an ad for it.

"I can't wait!" Setzer roared.

Moving to Minnesota is just the latest turn in Setzer's already multifaceted career. Reared in New York, he relocated with the Stray Cats in 1980 to England, where rockabilly was more en vogue (a fact that would soon change).

One of the trio's first big breaks in America came in the Twin Cities, when they opened for the Rolling Stones at the St. Paul Civic Center in 1981 before they had a stateside record deal.

"God, were we nervous," Setzer recalled. "I remember Mick [Jagger] came out to introduce us, I think because he saw we were so petrified."

The Stray Cats quickly broke out with a string of hits in the early-'80s ("Rock This Town,"Stray Cat Strut,"Runaway Boys"), but they broke up almost as rapidly in 1984. After a couple of modestly received solo rock albums, Setzer made it back to the charts in 1994 by reinventing himself as a swinging big-band leader with "The Brian Setzer Orchestra" album.

The BSO remains a popular touring attraction, but Setzer said he'll probably retire it after a holiday tour this year.

"It's fun, but it's just really expensive and a lot of work playing with that many pieces," he said.

His wife is the one part of the orchestra he's keeping. She was hired as a backup singer around 1999. As Setzer recalled it, "When she walked in to audition, I thought, 'God, I hope she's good.' "

For her part, Julie Setzer said she planned to tour with the orchestra for only a year, but those plans changed fast. The two started dating almost immediately.

"We realized we had a lot in common from the start, even with our different backgrounds," she said.

Before he married her in Palm Springs last summer, Setzer recorded one of his best albums in years, "Rockabilly Riot: A Tribute to Sun Records," featuring gritty but reverent versions of favorites such as "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Get Rhythm" plus many lesser-known nuggets. The disc got him back into his rocker/leather/hot-rod mode, where he's staying for this next record.

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