Smile Politely

A Happy Anniversary for Bottle Rockets

The Bottle Rockets with Otis Gibbs
Highdive, Champaign, Ill.
Aug. 16, 2008

“Happy anniversary,” Brian Henneman shouted as the Bottle Rockets took the stage, launching into the heavy, bitter lament about a romantic relationship gone wrong. But his announcement had a double meaning: This year marks the St. Louis band’s 15th anniversary, and vocalist Henneman, guitarist John Horton, bassist Keith Voegele, and drummer Mark Ortmann are celebrating by playing just 15 shows this year. At the end of the limited tour, they’re giving away a custom-designed electric guitar and ‘Bottle Rockets for Life’ — all the merchandise and concert tickets a fan could hope for.

But first, opener Otis Gibbs — a throaty-voiced Hoosier — set the roots-rock mood with a solid performance. The self-proclaimed ‘decent man in an indecent world’ played stripped-down folk songs with a political bent. At times clever (“The Great American Monkey Choir”), and other times poignant (“Caroline,” about a woman dealing with an abusive husband), Gibbs reeled in the audience with sharp storytelling and self-deprecating humor. Gibbs — who appeared to be the love child of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill — encouraged raucous audience participation, especially during a folk chant that declared “one day our whispers will be louder than your screams.”

After Gibbs’ set, the Bottle Rockets ripped through nearly two hours of sweaty, earthy rock. Overall, the sound quality was the only weakness of the band’s performance. Henneman’s vocals and Voegele’s harmonies sounded muffled. At times, Ortmann’s bass drum overpowered the guitars. One attendee, who had never heard the Bottle Rockets until this show, said hearing the harmonies more clearly would have made a huge difference. Another attendee, who proudly revealed that this was his 13th Bottle Rockets show, agreed that the vocals were rather difficult to understand, but, he stated, the show was stellar: “They never disappoint.”

And really, if you’re a fan of straightforward, no-frills rock, the Bottle Rockets don’t disappoint. They’re able to blend hard rock with country, throwing in an occasional dash of punk to keep things interesting. Along with fan favorites like “Radar Gun” (a radio hit in 1995) and the hilarious ”$1000 Car,” the band played a blistering “Things You Didn’t Know” (including a guitar solo that reminded me of Michael J. Fox’s smokin’ shred-fest in Back to the Future) and “Smoking 100s Alone,” a haunting tale of a woman stuck in a dysfunctional relationship. They also teased fans by playing a track from their soon-to-be released — and untitled — album. “We’re playing one song from the new CD at each show,” Henneman announced. “So if you go to every show this year, you get to hear the entire album!” he joked.

At one point, Henneman told a story about playing with the defunct cult darlings Uncle Tupelo. One night, after a show at Champaign’s Blind Pig, Henneman played a new song for Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy (later of Wilco, and — Henneman added with envy — ‘the richest friend I have’). It was “Indianapolis,” a Bottle Rockets concert anthem; the crowd went wild.

The Bottle Rockets played two covers: A chugging, laid-back version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze” (in fact, it was so laid-back, I initially mistook it for Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally”); and the grand finale, “Come and Get Your Love,” a 1974 R&B-influenced hit by Redbone. For the latter, Henneman donned an electric sitar. “My wife gave it to me for my birthday,” he explained to the audience, “and there’s no better song to play it on than this one.” The band pulled off the AM funk smashingly. Could this be a new direction for the Bottle Rockets? Maybe, but if they stick with their engaging rock-country formula, they’ll be celebrating for years to come.

Happy anniversary, Bottle Rockets.

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