Brian Henneman – Schubas Tavern (Chicago, IL)
“The Bottle Rockets are not broken up,” Brian Henneman said.
A pause, then the punch line: “We’re not like Son Volt.”
Which should put to rest those nagging questions about the status of a band that has seen two record labels fold and been dropped by a third, that less than a year ago was so unsure of its future that it turned down a chance to join former Doolittle labelmates Slobberbone in moving to New West Records, and whose last album, released two years ago, was widely regarded as a dud.
In his Schubas set — one stop on a Midwestern minitour designed to kill time and raise cash with the band off the road — Henneman played a handful of songs slated for the forthcoming Bottle Rockets disc. And though he all but ignored material from the band’s half-hearted 1999 effort Brand New Year, Henneman readily responded to requests that sent him rummaging through the darker corners of his catalog.
Sitting on a stool and strumming an electrocoustic guitar, Henneman’s inner folkie was laid bare. If John Prine’s status as a great influence on Henneman has been overlooked — and it has — these solo sets should go a long way to remedy that. As a songwriter whose strength lies in witty but true tellings of the dramas and melodramas of small towns and working people, Henneman has always been Prine with a Marshall stack.
Which leads directly to the problem that bedeviled this set. Just as playing Prine’s albums at top volume through a speaker with a busted tube doesn’t make them rock records, Henneman minus his band and bereft of his amplifiers leaves only a very lonely rocker.
“I want to play these songs like they were written,” Henneman told the crowd. In theory, that’s a fine idea, and it worked well for much of the as-yet unreleased material, as well as rootsier older songs such as “Kerosene”, “Pot Of Gold”, and especially “Waitin’ On A Train”. But the likes of “Perfect Far Away”, “Rural Route” and “Nancy Sinatra” all but disappear when stripped of their barre-chord bluster.
Bottom line: Rock and folk guitar are very different arts. Brian Henneman is a fine bandleader and a profusely accomplished roadhouse-rock guitarist, but as he proved at great length — 28 songs, in fact — he simply doesn’t possess the chops on acoustic guitar to pull off an extended solo set.
Now where’s that new Bottle Rockets record?