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Brian Setzer moves to Minneapolis and finds a new groove

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Everyone called the joint the Monte. The bartender poured a stiff drink and shared his gift of gab at no extra charge. He loved chatting with one of the regulars - a guy with a pompadour as slick as a Minneapolis, Minn., sidewalk on Super Bowl Sunday morning.

The barkeep knew the pompadour played guitar. "You should check out my basement," he said.

One night, the guitarist found himself shuffling down a flight of rickety steps into what looked like a New Orleans bordello. The bartender lifted a hook on a door, and there it was: a cozy cavern like Tut's tomb, but with some of the coolest vintage recording gear east of the Sunset Strip.

The axman's eyes lit up. "Do you know any drummers?" he asked.

"Of course," said the bartender. "A bass player, too."

True story, more or less: Those nights at Monte Carlo led to "Songs From Lonely Avenue," a new album by former Stray Cat Brian Setzer that swings, stomps and seduces like a long-legged dame in a detective's office with a request he can't refuse.

The album grew out of jams with local drummer Noah Levy and bassist Tommy Vee in bartender-turned-producer Mark Stockert's Underwood Studios. Inspired by the hard-boiled, film noir thrillers of the 1940s and '50s, the songs are fashioned like vignettes, with pulp-fiction titles such as "Kiss Me Deadly," "Love Partners in Crime" and "Dead Man Incorporated."

"I'd love to give the album to Quentin Tarantino and go, 'Can you write a film around this?'" Setzer said.

On the cover, there's Setzer, big avocado green Gretsch guitar in hand, posed atop his high-rise condo near the Monte Carlo against the Minneapolis skyline, his blond pompadour towering above it all.

The New York-born, California-based rock star moved to Minneapolis nearly six years ago after regular visits to see his new wife's family. (The former Julie Reiten, a singer from Hopkins, Minn., implores "Gimme Some Rhythm, Daddy" on "Lonely Avenue.")

"Moving to Minnesota was a breath of fresh air," Setzer said. "We were in Palm Springs (Calif.). Julie didn't want to feel like she was making me come back here. But I was making friends and going places here and I said, 'I really like it here.' I can walk down to the bar and I can talk to people. I found more often than not that we were coming here. We've been happy here."

And he has plugged into the music community.

"The best thing about Minneapolis - these guys are just as good as any players anywhere in the world. The difference is they'd be in the middle of dinner and they'd be over in 20 minutes. You would never get that in New York or L.A. You'd get his answering machine and a call back in a couple of days and 'I'm available in a week or two.'"

"When I get that focus, that's when the floodgates kind of open," Setzer said. "It takes two or three songs that sound similar: 'It's a '50s crime drama.' Now I write about the guy sneaking down the alley."

Inspired by those sessions, Setzer penned and then recorded the rest of "Lonely Avenue" in Minneapolis before heading to Hollywood to overdub strings and horns with legendary arranger Frank Comstock, 87, who'd worked on "Dragnet" and "Rocky & Bullwinkle" as well as with Judy Garland, Les Brown and Stan Kenton.

"He's the last one," Setzer said of Comstock. "All those big, old arrangers are gone - Billy May, Neal Hefti. Besides my last album, the last thing Frank did was 40 years ago. He wrote 'Adam 12.'

"He loves to talk. He says, 'I wrote some stuff in the Army for Christmas big bands.' So he goes in the garage - 'Little Town of Bethelem,' 'Little Drummer Boy.' I go, 'So this has been sitting in your garage since World War II?' The scores are 4 inches thick. We're going to try them (next year). It's like finding a diamond."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Brian Setzer Orchestra

WHEN: 8 tonight

WHERE: MGM Grand Theater at Foxwoods

TICKETS: $35-$55

CONTACT:
1-800-200-2882, mgmatfoxwoods.com

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