It was time for the climactic moment. Stray Cats’ biggest song. And Brian Setzer had the crowd all primed on Sunday night at Treasure Island Casino.
“Minnesota, are you ready to ‘Rock This Town’?” the frontman asked. He blasted the opening guitar riff. From atop his bass drum, Slim Jim Phantom did a flying leap. And — oops — his leg caught Setzer’ guitar cord and, well, gave a new meaning to unplugged.
The two musicians looked at each and just laughed. A smiling Setzer picked up the cord and whipped it like a lariat over his head.
“Let’s just try it again,” he said as he plugged in.
Setzer began the rhythmic riff, Phantom pogoed off the bass drum and then picked up his drumsticks while Lee Rocker slapped his bass — and Stray Cats, the 1980s neo-rockabilly MTV sensations, rocked the town of Welch, Minn.
There was nothing slick about the reunited Stray Cats except their ’50s-inspired pompadours. Celebrating their 40th anniversary on their first extensive tour in 12 years, the trio seemed older, more musical and as fun as ever.
But Stray Cats are even more appealing. Thanks to Setzer’s wide-ranging guitar vocabulary, the trio has added more “abillies” — jazzabilly, bluesabilly, twangabilly, punkabilly, boogieabilly, surfabilly, swingabilly, even bluegrassabilly.
At times Setzer, like Chuck Berry, would switch styles of music in mid-solo Sunday. He truly cut loose on the extended “Fishnet Stockings,” fingers going full speed up and down the fretboard, downshifting to descending lines, jamming in any direction he wanted and, of course, giving Rocker and Phantom moments to solo.
Setzer was having so much fun that after he wiped his hands and brow, he took the towel and patted Phantom’s forehead.
When the guitarist, who moved to Minneapolis about 15 years ago, does his annual holiday shows with his 19-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra, he showcases his guitar prowess in many styles, including classical, flamenco, rock and Latin as well as all those aforementioned ones. Those Christmas presentations feature nifty ’50-inspired suits, stylish bandstands and yule ephemera.
For Sunday’s strikingly stripped-down show, it was cool jackets, Stray Cats name and logo in lights, and two garbage cans onstage. That’s it.
What elevated the show was the trio’s insistence on hitting the refresh button. In May, Stray Cats released their first studio album in 26 years, titled “40” (as in their anniversary). Five tunes from the record made it into Sunday’s 22-song set list, and Setzer seemed noticeably amped on those numbers.
“Cat Fight (Over a Dog Like Me)” kicked off the 90-minute show with two minutes of hard-charging Berry-fueled rock. “Three Time’s a Charm” found Setzer’s guitar getting all jazzy and jumpy. “Mean Pickin’ Mama” took a trip through Nashville sounds. The playful “Rock It Off” introduced a blues shuffle into the mix.
Taking a lead vocal, Rocker got all Elvis-y on the clever “When Nothing’s Going Right” (“I go left”), complete with a guitar line right out of Roy Orbison’s songbook. Rocker also impressed singing “Bring It Back Again,” a slice of boardwalk soul with a country-and-western gallop.
Having Rocker sing was a nice change of pace, especially since Setzer’s voice sounded a little weary at times. The guitarist had played Saturday night with Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot, one of his other bands, at the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wis. However, he did impress with his crooning on the slow blues ballad “I Won’t Stand in Your Way,” which sounded like it could have been one of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits.
Setzer sparkled on two instrumentals, the bluegrassy “Cannonball Rag” and Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” the surf classic to which Setzer added a Middle Eastern flavor.
But the 3,000 fans came to party to such Stray Cats rockabilly rave-ups as “Gene and Eddie,” “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” “Built for Speed” and “Rock This Town” with its extra-special unplugged treatment.