Bottle Rockets – Shank Hall (Milwaukee, WI)
So many touring bands skip Milwaukee on the way from Chicago to Minneapolis that those who do stop and sit a spell ought to be guaranteed an avid response. The Bottle Rockets didn’t sell out this 300-capacity club — named after a fictitious venue in This Is Spinal Tap — but a couple hundred fans for a Thursday night all-acoustic set isn’t bad.
The Bottle Rockets accepted the comparatively sparse crowd with the courtly redneck grace that marks the band most likely to come from a place called Festus, Missouri. The quartet almost immediately established a rapport both musical and personal, telling stories in songs and telling jokes inbetween.
Although many of those jokes addressed the Rockets’ supposed amateur standing, leader Brian Henneman and his comrades rarely displayed anything but the ease with which they turn out myriad roots songs that are at once simple and memorable. From the Stooges chords and hick-cop sadism of “Radar Gun” to the Roger Miller wryness of “Kit Kat Clock”, the selections of the two-hour set proved that a good, solid song needs little amplification or noise to make a point.
Perhaps the Bottle Rockets’ relative lack of recognition owes something to how the band makes its craft and care look so easy. Not once during the show did anyone in the band — Henneman, drummer Mark Ortmann, bassist Robert Kearns or guitarist Tom Parr — show the grimaces that often pass for drama at live performances. Were the stage not elevated and the spotlights not prominent, the band could have been convincing audience members, regular Joes with beers and beards.
Except that they just happen to pick up instruments and convey a modest, resonant genius in songs such as “When I Was Dumb”, “Thousand Dollar Car” and “Gravity Fails”. They also introduced new songs that sounded instantly familiar yet still refreshingly different (a new album is due in August; Henneman promised it would be loud and electric).
Of course the separation between musician and listener exists, but on this night of acoustic revelation, the Bottle Rockets demonstrated how tenuous and illusory that boundary is.