The Bottle Rockets are true rock and roll veterans. Pushing their 20-year Anniversary, this St. Louis country-rock outfit has seen it all, traveling the world and playing venues dank and dark, polished and pristine, and long-ago forgotten. At the head of it all is Brian Henneman, a wryly observational singer-songwriter who worships at the altar of Sahm, Van Zandt, and Nelson. Though never as popular as some of his like-minded contemporaries, Henneman’s work stands up well as the years pass by, and friendships and collaborations with Tweedy and Farrar dating back to Uncle Tupelo give Henneman a great deal of cred in the alt-country universe.
Here, the band piles into the Lucas School House, a former one-room building dating back to 1898 and strip the sound down to the bare essentials. The 13 tracks provided serve as a well-rounded and diverse sampling of the band’s excellent catalog, but prove even more memorable for the insights provided before, during, and after each performance. A skilled raconteur, Henneman presides over the evening like a gregarious talk show host, throwing barbs at the crowd, hooting at his fellow musicians in unbridled glee, and giving a lot of background anecdotal evidence. You learn a lot about the songs here. In fact I now know the following: “Perfect Far Away” was written about an unpleasant attempt at seeing Dolly Parton at a local fair, it took a Herculean effort in the late 90’s for Henneman to get his tribute album to Doug Sahm recorded, and the band was, contrary to what you may think, quite nervous about performing in such an intimate venue and worried that the night would turn into a “stress-filled and self-indulgent” evening.
Henneman need not have fretted though, as the album is an impressive document of a band oft-overlooked and under-appreciated by music critics. Despite the toning down of the sound, they lose little of their trademark live power; if anything, the stripped down effects accentuate Henneman’s singing, John Horton’s guitar and banjo picking, Keith Voegele’s subtle bass grooves, and Mark Ortmann’s steady drum beats and shuffles. The lonely protagonists’ pain in “Smokin’ 100’s Alone” and “Kit Kat Clock” is genuinely and touchingly felt due to the attentiveness provided by the venue. The blue-collar populism of “Kerosene” rings true and heartfelt, while the stomping and sardonic working man send-off “Lucky Break” bleeds through the speakers with unabashed joyful intensity.
The Bottle Rockets are having a good time and their infectiousness trickles down to the listener as you involve yourself in the night’s show, clapping along, and wishing for more at the conclusion. If you’re a new fan, this album is a good place to start. If you’re a fan who’s been away for a while, you’ll be sucked right back in.