Relationships with bands that you love can be tricky. In the early 1990s, I was busy with a young family and had stopped listening to a lot of new music. I admired Nirvana, but I hadn’t really loved a band since Hüsker Dü imploded in the late 1980s. Once I discovered The Bottle Rockets, they almost obliterated everything that came before them for me musically. It was like a group developed in a lab by a mad scientist especially for me, combining a number of influences I love (from Neil Young to the Ramones and Johns Prine and Anderson). They had a decidedly rural perspective, but Brian Henneman’s Midwestern drawl took on subjects big and small with keen wit and expert songwriting. It had been several years since I had seen the band and I was honestly worried about the show. Worried that this was a group that was stuck in a rut, no longer evolving; worried that the band had become just something else that I used to love.
Sometimes, I can be really stupid. To cut to the chase, The Bottle Rockets in 2014 are as superb as they’ve ever been. Perhaps they are even better now than they were in the ‘90s, they are more disciplined and have four members that really understand how to play as a unit. Of course, it all starts with lead singer/guitarist Brian Henneman. He hit sharp, ringing melodic notes from his Rickenbacker all evening and sets the pace for the rest of the band. Drummer Mark Ortmann baffles me. He is so powerful behind the kit, yet works with such a light touch. I would recommend any young drummer study his technique. Bassist Keith Voegele looks like an early ‘70s Bob Seger and locks in tightly with Ortmann, but he can push the band into another gear, such as on the hard charging divorced father lament “Waiting for a Train.” Guitarist John Horton fills in any empty space with tightly constructed fills and solos. This is definitely a song band and every note is played with that vision in mind, but they can still rock with infinite force. The full throttle presentation of “Building Chyslers” (a demo on the rereleased Bottle Rockets/The Brooklyn Side CD that will be recorded with a full band arrangement for next album) was reminiscent of the glorious stomp of Crazy Horse.
The band played three other unreleased songs, both “Monday” and “Big Lots of Love” were melodic rockers that perhaps displayed frequent tour mate Marshall Crenshaw’s influence. “Smile” was an upbeat, breezy country rocker in the ’60s Bakersfield vein. The strength of the unreleased music bodes well for their next album, which they will start recording in October. This was a night with an enthusiastic crowd (“Nothing sounds better than a Texas ‘Hell Yeah!’”) and almost everything worked from the Stones-ish “Shame on Me” to the bouncy Lovin’ Spoonful inspired “Blue Sky.” It’s easy to play spot the influences with The Bottle Rockets, but they always sound fresh because of their complete lack of guile. They will never sound antiquated because of their passion for what they do and the emotional honesty of the songs. For me, this was a night that reinforced that The Bottle Rockets may be America’s best post-60s traditional rock ‘n’ roll band. The marketplace hasn’t validated them, but my ears don’t lie.
The set ended with a tour of the group’s “virtual hits; if we would have had any hits, these would be the ones.” After starting with the sly romantic moves of “I’ll Be Coming Around,” the band had the crowd in a frenzy with the hard earned economic lessons of “1000 Dollar Car” and “Indianapolis.” During the encore, after an audience requested and exhilarating “Waiting on a Train,” the band managed to take the frenzy up another level with their uproariously humorous, Chuck Berry inspired “Take Me to the Bank.” The Bottle Rockets played at least 25 minutes past their allotted time. They had found the sweet spot and didn’t want to let it go.
Was this a show about nostalgia? No. It was a reminder that this is a great band that hasn’t given up. The long way isn’t the wrong way.
I’m still in love.
Grade – A
Shame on Me
Wanna Come Home
24 Hours a Day
Every Kinda Everything
Alone in Bad Company
Big Lots of Love
Love Like a Truck
Get Down River
Get on the Bus
I’ll Be Comin’ Around
1000 Dollar Car
The Long Way
Dinner Train to Dutchtown
Waitin’ on a Train
Take Me to the Bank
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