THE BOTTLE ROCKETS made their first-ever Ithaca appearance June 18 at Castaways, playing to diehard long-time fans and new converts alike. With the satirical edge and social commentary of Woody Guthrie, the documentary realism of Bruce Springsteen – and the universal appeal of both – in documenting “the lives of their friends” in small-town America, the Bottle Rockets’ best songs hit the heart, the brain, the gut and the butt with equal and memorable power. Once heard, you don’t forget songs like “Welfare Music,” “Kerosene” or “$1,000 Car,” to name just a few.
That the pride of Festus, Mo. can pull off such thoughtful, pointed and honest messages while providing a good-time bar band experience for audiences is further testament to the band’s appeal, even 18 years down the road. If Guthrie is a 20th century Walt Whitman, and Springsteen an heir to Flannery O’Connor, then the collaborative songwriters in and around the Bottle Rockets all share John Steinbeck’s talent for hard-bitten humor, poignancy, and minute observational detail.
“Ithaca is fun! We’re having fun!” singer-songwriter-guitarist Brian Henneman exclaimed more than once during Friday’s show; this clearly sincere expression showed what the band was getting back from their small but very appreciative crowd (under 100 people).
They opened with “Wave That Flag,” from their long out-of-print 1992 debut album – a message to rebels sporting Confederate flags. The song predates latter-day public controversies over the symbol and its relation to slavery in South Carolina and other southern states (including Missouri).
Henneman, longtime drummer Mark Ortmann, guitarist John Horton (who plays several instruments on the band’s recordings) and bassist Keith Voegele gave a solid two-hour set of entertaining roots rock with sharp lyrics and plenty of banter with the crowd.
They played a mix of their older songs (“Welfare Music” and some others excepted) and several from the 2009 album “Lean Forward” – their fourth release for alt-country label Bloodshot Records.
Introducing “Queen of the World,” Henneman said, “Let’s play some damn country,” and then gave his perspective on the music:
“Country music is a lost art –– not so much a lost art as it is a lost social experience – and it ain’t comin’ back,” he said. “As long as there’s people in West Virginia with iPhones, it’s just another thing lost to time … Back when you heard George Jones sing a song, you knew that came from some other place. You wanted to know what that guy’s life was like, what he did when he went home at night. Not so much with Tim McGraw, who’s probably just sitting around counting his millions.”
The Bottle Rockets’ music has inspired music critics to add to a long list of influences and multi-hyphenated comparisons. I love a good cliché, so here goes: I hear in them the sonic crunch and emotional grandeur of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the “Southern thing” of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the poetic Everyman viewpoint of John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, not to mention the influence of classic country artists such as George Jones, Merle Haggard, et al. And, of course, real life – scenes from the road, the bar around the corner, or passing glimpses and fleeting moments, of things like a couple fighting in their car.
It’s no coincidence that the Bottle Rockets recorded a tribute album to the late Texas journeyman music legend Doug Sahm in 1999; Sahm was a master at blending styles into his own unique hybrid sound. Henneman has essayed the songbooks of Sahm and most of the other artists named above, notably in Coffee Creek, a not-so-secret cover band with the members of Uncle Tupelo in St. Louis in the early 1990s.
In their set, each song called up some classic sonic reference – Neil Young on “Slo Tom’s” and “Wave That Flag,” Bill Kirchen on “Every Kinda Everything,” AC/DC on “24 Hours a Day.” One of the best moments was entirely original, however – Horton’s guitar effects (achieved mostly with tone and feedback) on “Radar Gun.”
They closed with an encore by calling for requests –– they honored three: “$1,000 Car,” the rarity/outtake “Dinner Train to Dutchtown,” which Henneman said they hadn’t played “in like 100 years,” and a cover of Bobby Troup’s “Route 66.” The band stuck around for over an hour after packing up their gear to talk with lingering fans. They will be back, or so they were saying.
Virginia native and Ithaca musician/songwriter Drew Minson ordered his ticket not long after promoter Dan Smalls announced the show last November. “The first time I heard the Bottle Rockets on BootLiquor Radio, it was ‘Trailer Mama’ – which they didn’t play tonight – and then I heard ‘Welfare Music,’ and it was, ‘who ARE these guys?’” Minson said. “It was this driving, country-rock or alt-country sound, but with these great lyrics. A lot of their songs are also about one of my favorite subjects – just ordinary, rural people. They do ordinary people so poetically. That’s when I made the comparison to Bruce Springsteen, who also has that ability to turn real life into music – and they’re political, but they’re subtle about it.”
“I like that they defined the end of country music,” said Annie Keville, host of WVBR-FM’s Salt Creek show. “Listening to them has been like watching them create their own universe – they’re real. They’ve got that working-class integrity –– and what also impressed me is they look well, it’s not killing them.”
“What I super admire about them is, they’re not afraid of getting up in your political face,” Keville continued, “yet they don’t get political. Take ‘Wave That Flag’ – I grew up in the South, and that’s just what it is like. You identify yourself as an outsider, and at the same time it’s part of that real American experience.”
Oklahoma singer-songwriter Samantha Crain, well-remembered for a phenomenal show at last year’s Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival, led her trio – with drummer Anne Lillis and bassist Josh Timbrook – through an impressive and dynamic opening set of mostly recent songs, ranging from an acoustic set to punk rock ferocity.
Crain’s material is honest and raw; one song in particular, consisting of sharp epigrammatic putdowns like “a pen is a pen but it doesn’t mean you can write / you’ll never be John Updike even if you spell it right” — I could hear being covered in 1,000 coffeehouses.
She mentioned the band was denied access to Canada last week, and recalled her first visit to Ithaca – a gig at a record store and a three-day couch-surfer’s stay at a fraternity house.
“We got there and it was this big frat house,” she said. “The guy told us, that’s Tony – see him if you want beer. That’s Al – see him if you want weed. … That’s my Ithaca story. … Then we played GrassRoots – that’s a better story. It was a fairy tale.”
SET LIST — Bottle Rockets: Castaways, June 18, 2010
(list provided by David Bly)
Wave That Flag
Every Kinda Everything
Shame on Me
Kit Kat Clock
When I Was Dumb
Done It All
24 Hours a Day
Queen of the World
I’ll Be Comin’ Around
Love Like a Truck
Give Me Room
The Long Way
Encore — requests:
Dinner Train to Dutchtown
Route 66 (Bobby Troup)