Brian Setzer meets me at baggage claim. His beautiful wife, Julie, accompanies him. I see Julie first, wearing a bright smile, kick-ass pink cowboy boots (a gift from her husband) and a leopard-print hat. She throws her arms open wide and envelops me in an embrace.
“Awww! It’s so good to have you here!” she beams. “Welcome to Minnesota!”
Brian is standing behind his wife. He’s wearing 501’s, brown boots and a simple jacket. A red bandana is loosely tied around his neck and his signature pompadour is piled high on his head. I rush to him and he gives me a huge hug. He smiles and plants a kiss on my cheek.
“Hey, sweetie! How ya doin’? It’s great to see you!”
My baggage comes through the carousel and Brian immediately picks it up. He carries it up and down several escalators, out the sliding double doors and into the frigid parking lot.
Setzer loads my 51½ lb. suitcase into the back of his Cadillac Escalade with ease, and slides into the driver’s seat. Julie takes shotgun and I happily bounce in the leather bucket seat in the back, chuckling to myself.
My airport shuttle service is a rock star guitar legend.
It’s not too far of a drive to Mr. and Mrs. Setzer’s downtown Minneapolis abode. They casually turn over the keys to their furnished downstairs loft, where I will be staying the next four nights. They are eager to take care of me. Almost immediately upon arrival, Brian — “The Meat Manager” — fires up the grill, rubs his favorite seasoning blends on three farm-fresh pork chops and details how he best likes to serve them. Julie is busy preparing vegetables and setting the table.
I offer to help but my job is to relax, and be served.
Julie happily pours me a glass of rich, red wine as she and Brian both busy themselves about the kitchen. I glance at my surroundings. Brian’s daily crossword puzzle sits next to me, almost complete. Behind me in the open living/dining room, three shining Grammy awards are carefully positioned on the wall above a credenza, topped with anything and everything vintage and vinyl. It’s refreshing to see records, for a change. Grammy certificates and medals adorn the surrounding walls, as do pictures of Brian and Julie with beaming family members. I kick off my shoes, take a sip of the wine and let my toes sink into the plush leopard print carpet.
The next few days are simply delightful. Julie and I work out with Adam, her personal trainer, and enjoy a trip to the day spa. I cannot recall the last time — if ever — I have had a full day at the spa. Julie treats us both to a massage, facial, manicure and pedicure. We select matching sparkly, red nail polish. We decide pampering ourselves in the best way to kick off life on the road.
After all, we are much more than background vocalists in The Brian Setzer Orchestra. We are Vixens.
Brian calls Julie on our way home from the spa and asks her to pick up a few items for dinner.
“Oh, Brian’s going to make his famous ribs!” she exclaims.
Indeed, Brian happily makes our main dish every single night. We enjoy his ridiculously delicious ribs, rib eye steak, and tilapia. I barely lift a finger or shell out a dime, which is strange to me, since I am usually focused on earning my keep, not overstaying my welcome, or being a financial burden to anyone.
And I am often gently reminded of how happy Brian and Julie both are, having me in their home. I dub myself “the perfect third wheel”, eventually relax, and allow them to care for me.
It feels so good to be loved.
One night after dinner, Brian disappears upstairs, into his man cave. Julie and I relax by the fireplace and geek out on “Words with Friends” and “Draw Something”. Sounds of a serious game of pinball float downstairs, as does laughter (conversation with Brian’s longtime manager).
And then, Brian picks up his guitar.
I am instantly drawn to the music. The guitar has a rich sound, and Brian’s playing is better than ever. (How is that even possible?) I find him sitting on a bar stool, sipping tea and messing around with some jazz chords. I lean up against one of the vinyl snake skin chairs, careful not to disturb the framed, platinum Stray Cats record hanging closest to me.
“Hey, Les, do you want to see one of my favorite guitars?”
My heart skips a beat.
“Of course!” I almost shout.
Brian excitedly leads me into a large walk-in closet, where there must be at least twenty guitars in their respective cases, just waiting to be played to their fullest potential by their very capable owner.
He pulls out a 1950 D’Angelico, the very guitar used in the recording of The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole. Brian bought the guitar from John Collins, who played with Nat from 1951 until King Cole’s death in 1965.
“One of the coolest things about this particular guitar… “ Brian leans over, digs in the case and pulls out a tattered book of matches. He tosses them to me.
“…are those. Nat King Cole’s book of matches he used at one of his last gigs.”
All of the sudden, I am keenly aware I am holding a museum artifact. I carefully inspect the well-preserved cardboard, covered in palm trees and recognizable retro script. I open up the flap and notice exactly 25% of the matches are neatly torn off. I imagine Nat King Cole using them, one by one, to light a cigarette (or four – he was an avid smoker), and then stuffing them back into his pocket. Perhaps he only used them at that particular gig. And, somehow, they were passed from one music legend to another.
How I am holding them in my hand at that moment is a wonder.
Brian sits down the purple velvet couch, and I position myself next to him. The gigantic green Gretsch guitar fixture above us provides the appropriate amount of ambient lighting. Minneapolis twinkles in the distance.
Brian quickly tunes the old guitar, and begins to pick at the chords in the famous holiday song. Almost immediately, I am overcome with nostalgia.
It’s as if Nat himself is in the room. But he isn’t. Someone has to sing. I take a breath and begin.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire –
Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
Brian nails the classic guitar riff, and then adds his own. He smiles at me, urging me on, and I continue, gaining confidence.
Yuletide carols, being sung by a choir
and folks dressed up like Eskimos.
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright.
Tiny tots, with their eyes all aglow, will find it hard to sleep tonight.
I start to improvise a little, and Brian follows suit. We both are wearing smiles on our faces as we make music together. I’m cherishing every moment; every lyric; every lick.
History is being made. At least for me.
They know that Santa’s on his way,
he’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.
And every mother’s child is gonna spy,
to see if reindeer really know how to fly.
The guitar soars. Brian’s fingers fly across the strings. I control my voice and bring it back to a simple, straight tone. I can almost hear an orchestra swelling in the background.
And so, I’m offering this simple phrase
to kids from one to ninety-two.
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways,
‘Merry Christmas!’ to you.
We finish with reverence.
“Wow! Nice vocals!” Brian nods, approvingly.
I grin and take the compliment, for my multi-talented boss does not have bad taste.
We’ve done Nat proud.