Tuesday, August 16, 2011 / 7:06 AM
Let me just throw this out there right at the top: The Bottle Rockets are my favorite band to have emerged from St. Louis’ great alt-country uprising of the late-‘80s/early ‘90s.
Sure, sure; Uncle Tupelo burned brighter, but for a shorter time. And subsequent spinoffs Wilco went on to beat the major label system at its own game and—deservedly—achieve international stardom and critical acclaim, while Son Volt and Jay Farrar’s solo projects have satisfied artistically, but underperformed commercially. Though Farrar, I’ll argue, has written at least one song—“Windfall”—that people will be singing 50 or a hundred years from now—no mean feat.
The Bottle Rockets have a couple contenders in that category, too. Both “Kerosene,” a song from the band’s self-titled 1993 debut, and “Welfare Music,” the opening salvo from 1994’s “The Brooklyn Side,” are stories of economic blight and personal disaster that ring as true today—maybe even more so—than when they were written. Each of them is a potentially classic folk song.
Somewhere along the way, though, the Bottle Rockets were mislabeled a bar band. Maybe it’s the roaring guitars and thunderous thwack of the drums that dominate their live shows—necessary tools to simply be heard over the din of the venues they often play, which are, after all, bars.
But if the patrons at those shows would simmer down long enough to catch the wisdom, humor and genuine emotion behind some of the BoRox songs, a different and more complete appreciation of the band’s accomplishments over the last couple decades might emerge.
If you happened to be at St. Louis’ now-defunct Lucas Schoolhouse over the course of two nights in April, 2007, you know what I mean. That’s when the band performed a pair of sold-out shows advertised as live sessions for a more-or-less “unplugged” album that would be released that fall. For whatever reason, the recordings of those concerts have remained on the shelf until now. Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening with the Bottle Rockets is being released today.
On the album, BoRox frontman Brian Henneman thanks the crowd for “allowing us this stress-filled, self-indulgent evening.” The latter part of that is typical Henneman self-deprecation, but the band—which also includes drummer and co-founder Mark Ortmann, guitarist John Horton and bassist Keith Voegele—was wound a little tight back then. I managed to attend the first of the two shows, and I remember it being beset by technical glitches. Among other problems, Horton’s lap steel—one of the few electric instruments onstage—malfunctioned.
Great bands rise above adversity, though, and Horton simply laid his acoustic guitar across his lap and played it with a slide, acting like nothing was wrong. Still, at another point, Henneman quipped, “Please don’t tell us you like this better, ‘cause this is so much more difficult.”
Better? Maybe, maybe not. But by turning down the volume and playing some songs on unfamiliar instruments—Henneman occasionally took up the banjo, which he kept calling “this round machine”—the band offered new perspectives on tunes from throughout their career.
Some of the songs, including the stark “Early in the Morning” and the pop-leaning “Gravity Fails,” don’t vary much from their original arrangements. But “Kit Kat Clock,” a whimsical but wise song about the inexorable march of time, really hits home in a slowed-down version bolstered by Horton’s bluesy slide work.
The intimate setting also suits the desolation of “Smokin’ 100’s Alone” and “Mom & Dad,” the latter an ode to Henneman’s parents who both passed away in short order. “Kerosene” is here, too, though, sadly, “Welfare Music” is not.
As poignant as those moments are, Not So Loud offers plenty of fun as well, with the hilarious “1000 Dollar Car,” and Henneman’s story of his failed attempt to see Dolly Parton at a long-ago VP Fair, which resulted in the song “Perfect Far Away.” There’s also a raucous banjo-and-mandolin-driven take on “Rural Route,” and a nice version of “I Don’t Wanna Go Home” by Henneman’s personal guru, Doug Sahm, whom the band feted on their 2002 tribute album, “Songs of Sahm.”
“I always thought [Sahm] was a superstar. I had no idea he was obscure anywhere,” Henneman says right before the song. I have no illusions about the Bottle Rockets’ relative standing in the world, or whether a terrific live acoustic album like Not So Loud will change that. But I've always felt like they’re superstars, too. Or at least should be.
Vintage Vinyl (6610 Delmar, 314-721-4096) hosts a CD Release in-store for Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening with the Bottle Rockets at 7 p.m. on August 26th.
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