Stray Cats: Live in Montreux 1981 DVD Review: Rockabilly Purr-fection

Rockabilly revivalists Stray Cats (guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer, upright bassist Lee Rocker, and drummer Slim Jim Phantom) took America by storm in 1982 with the release of Built for Speed, a compilation of their first two UK albums, Stray Cats and Gonna Ball. “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town” made their way up the charts and videos for the songs frequently played on MTV.

But before the Long Island trio found success in their homeland, they made their way to London in 1980 to take part in the rockabilly scene. February 1981 saw the release of their first album and before the second was released later that year in October, the band played the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 10, 1981. The folks at Eagle Rock Entertainment deserve thanks because the 79-minute set presented here makes clear why the great heights ahead of the band were inevitable.

The concert opens with Johnny Burnette’s “Sweet Love On My Mind.” Rocker’s bass slapping is distinct and solid in the mix as it is frequently throughout the DVD. Phantom keeps the beat tight and lets out some wails to punctuate the narrator’s frustration. They pick up the pace ever so slightly on Danny Wolfe’s “Double Talkin’ Baby” as Setzer tears into his leads. Demonstrating how well they know the sounds of the era they are emulating, the original “Rumble in Brighton” sounds like a lost ’50s classic.

The band demonstrates their skills aren’t limited to one style during this concert. Setzer shows skills for the blues when Lee Rocker sings lead on “Drink That Bottle Down”. Likely influenced by The Clash, “Storm The Embassy” is an extremely engaging song and a fascinating rarity for the band as the fast cars and fast girls of youth are set aside for the international politics of the Iran hostage crisis. This is the first time I ever heard it. Not only was I extremely impressed, but also slightly disappointed they didn;t do more in this vein.

They return to familiar territory with “Stray Cat Strut” and during the bridge, viewers are privy to more great bass work from Rocker while Setzer’s evocative guitar licks sound like a cat “slink[ing] down the alley.” Introduced as “Rock This Chalet” and described by Setzer as “an old Swiss folk song,” the boys tear into “Rock This Town,” which finds the crowd at their most enthusiastic. Taking a brief break backstage, they return for “Runaway Boys,” which quickly returns things to a rebellious attitude and a rollicking pace.

They close out the night with a string of covers. “Be Bop A Lula,” the second Gene Vincent cover of the night after the ballad “Important Words” earlier in the evening, finds the band joined by singer Pearl Harbour and Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. “Somethin’ Else” is an Eddie Cochrane number, and years later Setzer would play him in the Ritchie Valens bio pic La Bamba. Things come to an end with another Danny Wolfe number, “Pretty Pretty Baby.”

Although there’s no extras, Stray Cats – Live at Montreux 1981 is such a satisfying release, none are needed. The concert captures a band at the peak of their talents and demonstrates that great music is the timeless. The only thing missing is a suggestion on the packaging to play the DVD loudly.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site.

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