There’s nothing like a double dose of electric guitar to chase away the winter chill, and The Bottle Rockets did just that on a cold December night in Minneapolis. With lead singer/songwriter Brian Henneman on the Rickenbacker and John Horton on the ubiquitous Les Paul, The Bottle Rockets have as potent a two-guitar lineup as any band working the bar scene today. It would be convenient, but also misguided, to draw comparisons between Horton and Henneman, and the prototypical American rock guitar duo, Duane Allman and Dickie Betts. Where the Allmans’ sound was rooted in the blues, The Bottle Rockets’ heritage is country – particularly, the outlaw country branch of the family tree. Given Brian Henneman’s previous stint as guitar tech/roadie and occasional contributor to the seminal alternative-country band, Uncle Tupelo, it’s appropriate to hang the alt-country label on them (“whatever the hell that means,” as the T-shirts the band hawks wryly note). Rounding out the group, charter member Mark Ortmann pounds out the rhythm while Keith Voegele plays bass and adds harmony vocals.
The Rockets played two 75-minute sets, the first being devoted primarily to familiar favorites, with a couple of new tunes thrown in, while the second set featured deeper cuts from the band’s extensive catalogue. Opening with “Way It Used To Be,” from their last studio release, 2009’s “Lean Forward,” the band then debuted a new song, “I Wonder If She’s Real,” showcasing the band’s signature twin lead guitar sound. The band’s current lineup has been in place for nearly eight years now, and the guitarists’ familiarity with each other is obvious onstage, as Horton and Henneman easily play off one another, trading licks and fills, and coming together in gorgeous harmonics.
Returning to the “Lean Forward” album, the band got slinky with “Hard Times,” with its N’awlins’ second-line feel, then brought out the twang on “I Wanna Come Home.” After one more new number, Henneman made the obligatory pitch for the merch table, noting that on a cold winter night in Minnesota the trick to staying warm is to dress in layers. “So buy a T-shirt!” The shill worked, as folks flocked to the stage during the break to purchase shirts and other band memorabilia.
But first, there was a lot more music to be played. “Get On The Bus” started out slightly slowed down from the album version, with some fine solo guitar work by John Horton, then went through a number of tempo changes as the bus roared on along its route. “Kerosene,” a slow, mournful ballad about an impoverished family who died in a trailer fire (“If kerosene works, why not gasoline?”) was delivered without a trace of sentiment. Shaking off the melancholy tone, the band shifted to the uptempo “When I Was Dumb,” followed by “I Fell Down,” and “Alone In Bad Company.” Horton then switched to lap steel for “Get Down River,” a plea to a flooding river to return to its banks. Highlights from the close of the first set included a rocking “I’ll Be Coming Around,” segueing into the wry, cautionary tale of the “$1,000 Car” (“A thousand dollar car it ain’t worth nothin’/A thousand dollar car it ain’t worth shit/Might as well take your thousand dollars/And set fire to it”). “Indianapolis” was given a rousing, rollicking treatment, “Welfare Music” featured more intricate interplay between the two guitarists, and the set came to a close with an urgent reading of “Around The Bend.”
Henneman introduced the second set as “the set of way lesser played songs,” although, in truth, there were a fair number of familiar songs as well. Included in the set were two gems off the band’s tribute to the late Doug Sahm, “Songs of Sahm”: the beautiful ballad “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” with Horton once again adding exquisite touches on the lap steel, and “At The Crossroads” (“You can’t live in Texas if you ain’t got a lotta soul!”). The sinister sounding “Dinner Train To Dutchtown” segued into the uptempo romp “Waitin’ On A Train,” followed by the mournful breakup song “Smoking 100’s Alone,” with John Horton switching back to lap steel again.
With the lateness of the hour, the crowd began thinning, which was a shame, as some of the best moments of the night were to follow. Brian Henneman’s solo on “Things You Didn’t Know” was a highlight of the set, as was the ode to Ole Blue Eyes’ daughter, “Nancy Sinatra,” followed by “Gravity Fails.” “Love Like A Truck” got the big rave-up treatment & brought a few dancers (mostly women) on to the floor. Acknowledging the cheers afterward, Henneman cracked, “We like to hear women say ‘Oh my God!’ at our shows!” Before closing with “Turn For The Worse” (an almost note-for-note copy of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”), Henneman made a final comical pitch for the merch table, noting “Your merchandise purchases are the difference between a Motel 6 and a Super 8 for us tonight!”
The end of the year marks a significant anniversary for the band, as Henneman noted: “At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, The Bottle Rockets turn 20!” With the current lineup comfortably in place and obviously enjoying what they’re doing, there’s every reason to hope that they’ll be comin’ around, knockin’ our back doors down, for another decade or two. But, in the music business, nothing can be taken for granted, so make yourself a New Year’s resolution to get out and see this band if they play anywhere near you in 2013. You’ll be glad you did.