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Stray Cats Re-Form and Return to Cheers at the Coach House

Sporting gravity-defying coifs, biker leathers and armloads of tattoos, the Stray Cats could easily have been mistaken for the latest British trend-of-the-week when they hit the United States in 1982. (Like many American artists, the New York-bred group had to seek its fame overseas).

But the riotous zeal and hot-rodded musical skill of the Stray Cats’ performances made it clear that it was a love of rockabilly music rather than a shot at a fast buck that had brought the group together.

The trio’s motives in re-forming recently could have been more suspect. In the age of “classic rock” radio, nearly every failed ex-member of a known band is trying to cash in on the old name.

After splitting in 1984, the Stray Cats’ sundered careers sank so profoundly that working night shifts at mini-marts might soon have seemed a smart career option for each of the three.

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Despite his exposure in the hit “La Bamba” film, singer-guitarist Brian Setzer’s two solo efforts were palpable flops, while drummer Slim Jim Phantom’s and bassist Lee Rocker’s ill-fated collaboration with guitar whiz Earl Slick drew only 70 people to a Coach House gig last year.

But with the three back under their old trademark, the Stray Cats sold out two Coach House shows Thursday evening a month in advance, and fans raised a deafening cheer well before the group even came onstage for the first show.

That enthusiasm was warranted, as the trio proved every bit as effective at resurrecting its own career as it had been at kicking new life into ‘50s rockabilly six years earlier.

There were moments when the three appeared to be merely going through the motions--most evident on rote, somnambulant versions of the Top 10 hits “Stray Cat Strut” and “Runaway Boys"--but much more often they seemed caught up in the exhilaration of the roots-rock rhythms pumping from their still-minimal assortment of instruments.

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Phantom’s nearly non-existent drum kit, Rocker’s hard-ridden (literally, as he was often astride it) stand-up bass and Setzer’s direct Gretsch-to-amp guitar setup were unchanged from the group’s old days, as was the sartorial leaning towards ‘50s sidewall slacks and Indian motorcycle T-shirts.

But the three clearly weren’t interested in reliving 1982. Although they set fire to “Rumble in Brighton,” “Rock This Town” and other catalogue numbers during the show, most of the passion was reserved for new songs.

Although back together for only a few months, they’ve had time to craft a number of new Stray Cats originals, and these formed the strongest part of the set.

Propelled by a roaring guitar riff, “Blast Off” mixed lyrics full of ‘50s sci-fi imagery with lightning guitar solos, while “Nine Lives” was a sultry “Fever"-derived ballad that highlighted Setzer’s smooth growl of a voice.

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The standout of the new songs was a melodic rocker named “Gina"--a relative of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” if Phantom’s careening tom-tom rolls were any indication.

The packed house greeted the new songs with the same zeal as the old favorites, making up for the Coach House’s lack of a dance floor by dancing on tables and chairs.


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