Happy Thanksgiving from the Bottle Rockets
“We couldn’t do this without you,” Bottle Rockets front man Brian Henneman said after a nearly two-hour main set at the Off Broadway Music Venue on Nov. 26, adding, “We could, but why?”
Why, indeed. The St. Louis band’s annual hometown Thanksgiving show was an unqualified success. The venue’s 400-person space was packed; the show’s format featured nonstop music with no opening act, no intermission, and a three-song acoustic midsection; and Henneman created a 30-song set list that was heavy on tunes that haven’t had stage time in years.
Three of our favorites – “Kit Kat Klock,” “Get Down River” and “Love Like a Truck” – didn’t even make the cut in the main set or among eight more songs during a 22-minute encore. Drummer Mark Ortmann, who co-founded the band with Henneman 23 years ago, laughed after the show and said, “We’ve got too many songs!”
Nice position to be in for a quartet of day-job working men, and band and audience each were thankful for the other.
It’s been a good year for guitarist/chief songwriter Henneman, Ortmann, bassist Keith Voegele and guitarist John Horton, perhaps the band’s best commercially since The Brooklyn Side was released in 1994. The band’s most recent CD, the Eric Ambel-produced South Broadway Athletic Club, came out in October 2015, got lots of radio play, and spent time on Americana and roots music charts. That led to a busy year of touring.
In introducing the main-set finale, “Heart Like a Wheel” from the SBAC record, which is about the challenges of keeping a working band alive for 23 years, Henneman said:
“It’s like keeping a sno-cone stand going for 23 years,” unlike being in the Rolling Stones, where “if you die, they bring you back to life. … If you OD on drugs, they give you a blood transfusion.”
The Bottle Rockets is not a political band; they don’t play protest songs. But Henneman’s work is suffused with empathy for common people coping with life, from the single mom and baby in the Scott Taylor cowrite “Welfare Music” to the poor family burned alive in their trailer in “Kerosene.”
So it cannot be a coincidence that, three weeks from election day and in uncertain times, Henneman chose to kick off the show with three tracks from Zoysia (2006), a record that was notable for songs about trying to survive in a polarized world.
The band started with “Zoysia”: “Out on the lawn we got campaign signs./ We always know when it’s election time./ The guy next door, his signs are not like mine,/ But he’s alright and we get along fine.”
“Man of Constant Anxiety” followed: “Trouble to my left and to my right/ I’ll be up worryin’ all night/ With terror in the air and on the evening news/ I don’t know how it won’t give me the blues.”
The Zoysia triple play was capped off with “Middle Man”: “If I could be a little bit happier/ If I could be a little more cranky/ If I could be a little more Dixie/ If I could be a little more Yankee/ Then I would be a little bit better/ Yeah I would be a little bit better/ But I’m a middle man, stuck in the middle.”
The closest Henneman has ever come to a “statement” is “Wave That Flag” from the band’s 1993 debut. It was the penultimate song in this show, and its observation on the display of the Confederate flag is as raw and angry as ever:
“Wave that flag, hoss, wave it high/ Do you know what it means? Do you know why?/ Maybe being a rebel ain’t no big deal/ But if somebody owned your ass/ How would you feel?”
The BRox were in sync all night and were thoroughly enjoying themselves: Ortmann sang along to himself back on the drum kit; Voegele smiled for cell phone photos; Horton worked his guitars for original and unexpected tones; and Henneman all but broke into a little dance during the guitar solo on “Mountain to Climb.”
Eight of the band’s 10 studio albums were represented, with eight songs coming from The Brooklyn Side, seven from SBAC and six from Zoysia. The band took the stage to the recorded theme from TV’s “The Rockford Files,” and eight songs, including the classic “Welfare Music,” roared by without a pause for breath before Henneman spoke, thanking the crowd for coming out.
A guitar gear geek of some repute, Henneman was using his new love, a vintage Gibson SG mated to a pair of daisy-chained amps. The results were noteworthy; his rhythm playing was muscular, his solos ran the range from twangy and nuanced to fat and fiery, especially on the SBAC track “Ship It on the Frisco.” He and Horton swapped leads effectively on songs including “Welfare Music” and “Something Good.” And the SG’s riff on “Hard Times” cut a mighty groove.
The show’s midsection featured three songs with Henneman on acoustic guitar. Ortmann joined in on tambourine and maracas for “Nothin’ But a Driver,” inspired by Henneman’s days working at a car stereo shop; Horton on lap slide provided the accompaniment for the poignant “Where I’m From”; and the full band returned for the Ortmann-penned “Baggage Claim,” a 9/11-inspired lament from the album Blue Sky (2003).
Henneman called the first half of the show “business up front” and the second half a “party in the back.” The party kicked off with the band’s only instrumental, “Bud Nanney Theme” from 1993, a Buck Owens-inspired romp not played since before Horton and Voegele signed on more than a decade ago.
Three more SBAC songs, including the frisky “Dog,” followed before the fan-favorite singalongs, among them “Slo-Tom’s,” “1000 Dollar Car” and “Indianapolis.”
The evening closed with a cover of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “Mendocino” from the Bottle Rockets’ Songs of Sahm tribute album, after which Henneman pronounced the show “fabulous.”
The next morning on Facebook, Henneman wrote:
“The loud was proud. The quiet was quiet. The band was flawless. The audience was beautiful. … I will remember that show for the rest of my days.”
And so will the rest of us.
Bottle Rockets set list
Man of Constant Anxiety
I Don’t Wanna Know
Give Me Room
Way It Used To Be
Ship It on the Frisco
Nothin’ But a Driver
Where I’m From
Bud Nanney Theme
Big Fat Nuthin’
Mountain to Climb
Pot of Gold
1000 Dollar Car
Take Me to the Bank
Shape of a Wheel
Smokin’ 100’s Alone
Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)
24 Hours A Day
I’ll be Comin’ Around
Wave That Flag