Bottle Rockets – Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago, IL)
On a warm September evening, at the base of a manicured green hillside, the Bottle Rockets took the stage amidst a strange mixture of odors: human perspiration, beer, the sizzling grease of $9 steak sandwiches and the repulsive stench of cigars being sucked by affluent Gap shoppers. (Thankfully, there was no scent of manure because the performance area was located far from the monkey cages and the barnyard exhibit.)
Yes, the boys from Festus, Missouri, were playing at a zoo, for an audience largely unfamiliar with their music. Despite the odd setting and the tame crowd response, the band (especially singer-guitarist Brian Henneman) delivered a superb performance. For the few devout fans present, it was a great opportunity to hear songs that will be on the Bottle Rockets’ as-yet-untitled next album. For the rest of the crowd, it was a chance to be converted, or at least to a have a good time.
The 19-song set included fiery versions of old favorites such as “Gas Girl”, “Radar Gun” and “1,000 Dollar Car”, all performed with conviction and some guitar heroics from Henneman. But it was the seven new songs that made this show truly interesting. The band recently recorded at Echo Park in Bloomington, Indiana; Henneman said the new album should be out around January.
The new songs “When I Was Dumb” and “Perfect Far Away” will please those fans who appreciate the band’s witty but poignant observations on romantic relationships. The latter song’s chorus is an insightful commentary on fear and idealization: “I wonder if she’s real/I really couldn’t say/I don’t wanna know/She’s so perfect far away.”
Joining a long songwriting tradition that includes such divergent artists as Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash and the Old 97’s, the band played a couple of new train songs. “Waitin’ on a Train” is a solid rocker that got a few people in the crowd moving, while “Dinner Train to Dutchtown” is a bluesy, rumbling number that featured some subtle percussion from Mark Ortmann and a killer guitar solo by Henneman.
“Dohack Joe” and “24 Hours a Day” were also strong, but the best “new” song of the evening was actually quite old. The first song Henneman ever released, “Indianapolis”, came out years ago as a vinyl 45 (on Rockville Records) under his name, and it featured a backing band of Ortmann plus Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy (then of Uncle Tupelo). At the urging of its record label, the band has decided to include this song on its upcoming album. A catchy tune about being stranded when a van breaks down, it asks the pithy musical question, “Is this hell or Indianapolis?”
The concert’s most memorable song was “I’ll Be Comin’ Around,” from the band’s brilliant second album, The Brooklyn Side. It included a long instrumental break that Henneman likened to “a totally Bruce Springsteen kinda thing,” which inspired Henneman to launch into a hilarious monologue on The Boss. New Jersey’s favorite son was praised for his work between 1976 and 1984, but the Missourian poked fun at Springsteen’s current status as “an L.A. guy with six earrings.” Perhaps fearful of offending some in the audience, Henneman added that he still loves Springsteen and that if he were at the show, Henneman would gladly welcome him onstage, because, “Once a badass, always a badass.”
Springsteen wasn’t the only hero and musical influence to whom Henneman paid tribute. He claimed (perhaps only half-kidding) that the only reason the band was playing that evening was because they couldn’t get tickets to see Neil Young (who was performing at a suburban venue somewhat larger than the zoo). After the band ended its regular set with the concert staple “Welfare Music”, Henneman jokingly delivered the first line and opening chords of Young’s classic “Cowgirl in the Sand.”
For an encore, the band played an extremely long version of “Farmer John,” a ’50s song Young has recorded and often performs live. Henneman invited the audience to join the band onstage, and about 40 or 50 people took him up on the offer. The stage became so crowded that guitarist Tom Parr and bassist Tom Ray couldn’t even be seen by those in front of the stage. Henneman took the “audience participation” element a bit too far when he passed around his microphone and guitar, resulting in an enthusiastic but awful racket.
The Bottle Rockets know what it takes to make it in rock ‘n’ roll: Ya gotta have talent, and ya gotta play live — even if that means performing at a place where some audience members’ reaction to the music is overshadowed by the image of a Siberian tiger pacing in a cage.