The Bottle Rockets actually began playing together in 1992, but their first album came out in 1993, so the fifteenth-anniversary celebration they conducted this year seems reasonable enough. Given that singer-guitarist Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann have played together for more than 25 years, and that they are the only two Bottle Rockets to appear on every album and every tour, fifteen years seems just one benchmark among many.
The Bottle Rockets ended their round of fifteen shows since spring with as perfect a summation of their career as any fan could want. In every city on this not-quite-tour, the set lists were chosen randomly from entries submitted by contributors to the band’s message board. As a result, the shows have been filled with a nice mixture of obvious classics (“$1000 Car”, “Radar Gun”, “Indianapolis”) and deep album cuts (“Middle Man”, “Headed For The Ditch”, “Nancy Sinatra”).
The current lineup has been together for three and a half years, and has turned into one of the tightest configurations of rock musicians working today. With Henneman and John Horton trading powerhouse lead lines and crunchy, country-inflected licks, the guitars have locked into some sort of mind-meld. If you’re not watching their hands, you can’t always tell which one of them is sending those chills up your spine.
And then there’s the rhythm section. Ortmann remains one of the best unsung drummers in rock. The man crackles right in the pocket like Charlie Watts, yet tends to throw in far more fills to drive the songs. Keith Voegele has added a spark to the bottom end with his bass lines, which alternate between elastic melodies and rumbling grooves.
The fan-chosen set lists for each city included one cover song each time; this night featured an extremely intense “Hey Hey My My” from Neil Young. To reward the longtime hometown fans as well as those who traveled to see this show, the second set this night included all of the previous shows’ covers played in a row. Henneman has probably played Young’s “Down By the River” since he was 12 years old; “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd was another obvious choice. It was cool to hear him play Wilco’s “Passenger Side”, given that his guitar playing was essential to the recorded version; Voegele sang it nicely, too. The true revelations came with wonderful takes on the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”, David Bowie’s “Suffragette City”, and most especially Redbone’s pop classic “Come And Get Your Love”. After a fabulous set of their own material, the Bottle Rockets suddenly turned into the greatest cover band playing anywhere in the world this night.
(The Bottle Rockets playing Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love” to close out a fifteenth-anniversary show at the Basement in Nashville, August 2008)
In between, Henneman awarded prizes of “Bottle Rockets for life” (every album from the past to the future, free admission to every performance, and even a drink every time) as well as the beautiful custom-built guitar he’s played all year. The venue, the Duck Room, is a completely remodeled and expanded use of the space that once held Cicero’s Basement Bar, where Henneman and Ortmann often held court (playing some of the same songs) with Chicken Truck in the 1980s. Somehow, it seemed appropriate to see Henneman give so much to his fans in the place where he could so often be seen as a fan and an up-and-coming musician himself, back in the day.