Music: The Bottle Rockets, a Late Introduction

by Rick Rockwell

It helps to have friends who know music.* Just like in the world of dating, friends will set you up with a match. But instead of how it goes in the dating world, the set-up is for a band that will make you smile and keep you smiling.

Such it is with this critic’s roundabout introduction to The Bottle Rockets.

These guys are a natural fit. They are from the exurbs of St. Louis, Missouri (Festus, of all places). They have an album called Zoysia. (Anyone who has mowed a lawn in the St. Louis area as this critic once did many times many moons ago knows what zoysia is, but few out east seem to discuss it or talk about it like in the Midwest.) Zoysia, their last album, from 2006, even made Stephen King’s best music list that year and he calls them America’s best bar band. (Best-selling author King, an easterner, confessed he did not know what zoysia was though. Where are his researchers?) The Bottle Rockets play gritty alt-country and roots rock. (At times, The Bottle Rockets sound like a 21st Century version of that famous Floridian band from the ‘70s, The Outlaws.) The Bottle Rockets cut a record of Doug Sahm covers in 2002, which seems appropriate for that musical niche, and a perfect fit with this critic.

This year, perhaps as a gift to themselves, The Bottle Rockets are only performing live 15 times, to mark their 15th anniversary as a band. But you can catch a recording of one of those performances, a 27-minute selection from a hometown appearance in St. Louis on the FrontRowMusic.tv site. That performance was taped at BB’s Jazz Blues and Soups Cafe.

One of the reasons The Bottle Rockets have limited their touring in 2008 is they are in the studio (in Brooklyn, New York, supposedly) cutting a new album, pegged for release sometime next year. So in the meantime, one must make do with what is already available on video and online.

As a fairly stoic, no frills outfit, at times, like any bar band, The Bottle Rockets do fade into the background. Some of their material doesn’t rise above the well-trod middle ground (“I Wanna Come Home” from The Brooklyn Side and “Feeling Down” from Zoysia). But then the band will regain attention with a real zinger.

“Happy Anniversary” is the best number from the Live at BB’s session. Band leader Brian Henneman first grabs for a lyrical gambit: “I’m here at your party / Trying not to hurt / In my melancholy trousers / And that masochistic shirt." Then lead guitarist John Horton takes the throttle and the song blasts off. Other critics have compared Horton’s soloing to Crazy Horse’s Frank “Pancho” Sampedro (think Zuma-era Neil Young and Crazy Horse) and that influence shines through clearly on “Happy Anniversary.”

Horton also punches the pedal on the fun-loving “I’ll Be Coming Around” (from their 1995 release Brooklyn Side), which has a finely crafted hook. “Kit Kat Clock” (from 1997’s 24 Hours a Day) is another unexpected treat, with another well-set hook. “Indianapolis” is probably the band’s most popular tune, telling the somewhat comical story of a trucker stranded in Indiana. (Lyric sample: “I’ll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time.”)

But beyond the pickin’ and grinnin’, The Bottle Rockets also display some serious songcraft. “Get Down River” (from 1998’s Leftovers) has the feel of something penned by Robbie Robertson, aided as it is by the disciplined snare work of drummer Mark Ortmann (a la Levon Helm from The Band).

Besides these numbers, listeners can also find grittier versions of material from The Bottle Rockets at the band’s website, including the funny “Nancy Sinatra” (from 1999’s Brand New Year) and the rollicking “Mountain to Climb.”

So it has taken far too long to find The Bottle Rockets. Members of the band would probably say, “that’s the story of our lives.” Nevertheless, now that they are on the radar, we’ll be searching for that next new release. Maybe next year.

*A tip of the hat to Michael Gallelli, part of the production team for the iVoryTowerz podcast for the introductions. The Bottle Rockets are part of the musical line-up at FrontRowMusic.tv, and Michael is one of the partners behind that organization. By the way, FrontRowMusic.tv is an excellent source for video on blues, alt-country and roots rock artists.

(The photo shows three members of The Bottle Rockets: (l-r) singer-guitarist Brian Henneman and bassist Keith Voegele; drummer Mark Ortmann is obscured in the background. The photo is © copyright FrontRowMusic.tv and is used with permission. The Bottle Rockets will play their next concert on the band's limited international tour on Saturday, Aug. 16 in Champaign, Illinois. To see The Bottle Rockets play a live version of "Indianapolis," please check below.)

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