The first time the Bottle Rockets played the House of Righteous Music it was a full-on rock show with spilled beer and standing room only in front of the “stage.” On their second trip through they were doing a series of living room shows and had stripped it down to a more acoustic, but still plugged in show, the third time fell somewhere in between. Two days before the show drummer Mark Ortmann called to tell me that they’d decided to do tonight’s show almost, totally, completely unplugged. Only Keith Voegele’s bass required electricity, there were no microphones, no guitar amps, the most minimal drum kit you could imagine and a whole lot of John Horton’s mandolin. They’d done these shows before, in other living rooms, but they hadn’t done it here, and it was remarkable. Some songs were completely reinvented in this format and the whole show was a revelation.
One thing that was the same is that the show was all request. Sitting down in front of the surprisingly hushed crowd, lead singer Brian Henneman asked “so what do you want to hear?” “You’ve been here before, you know how this works.” The requests kept coming for an hour and a half, drawing heavily from the first two records, which tied nicely into the deluxe re-release of their self-titled debut and sophomore effort The Brooklyn Side on Bloodshot Records. Unfortunately the double disc set with a staggering amount of extras including live cuts, demos (many recorded with Uncle Tupelo who Henneman toured with), and versions of the songs from Chicken Truck, their pre-B Rox incarnation, has proven so popular that they can’t keep it in stock and the band had only five copies left to sell tonight (all of which were snapped up before the end of the set). They opened with the riding the range song “Lonely Cowboy,” followed by “Pot of Gold” which Henneman claims contains the most romantic chord in the Bottle Rockets oeuvre, though he claims he came upon it accidentally. Of course fan favorites like the lighthearted trio of “Radar Gun,” “Indianapolis,” and “$1000 Car” were among the requests, as well as the disheartened “Smokin’ 100’s Alone” and the gut wrenching “Kerosene.”
They had reached the end of the set and announced they were only going to play a few more songs. Henneman listened to the requests, apparently waiting for the perfect one. “What’s it going to be…” he pondered, waiting so long to decide that I finally made one. “OK, I’ll say it, ‘When I Was Dumb,’” I called from the back of the room. It must have been what he was waiting for. I wasn’t going to, I wanted to give everyone a chance to get their song heard, but ultimately I had to know what my favorite song would sound like in this setting. It wasn’t as wildly different from the original as some of the songs had been, but it was really great. The Bottle Rockets in the basement has proven to be one of the most consistently entertaining and always intriguing shows I host. Thanks again guys.
I’d only seen Otis Gibbs once before during SXSW at a Sunday afternoon fried chicken cookout and show. I bought both CDs and invited him to come play at the house sometime. I didn’t hear from him, but when I saw he was playing many of the dates on either side of my house, I asked the Bottle Rockets if it was possible for him to come to Madison. It only took a few hours before I heard back from Bob at Undertow, and Gibbs was on the bill. He was also happy to play unplugged, and wowed the crowd with an emotionally intense set of story-songs, but only after he requested that everyone put away their video cameras. “Let’s just live in the moment,” he asked. Perhaps my favorite of his was “My True Friends.” “Everyone’s your best friend when you’re closing down the bars,” he laments, “but God bless the ones who really are.” I gave him another card, hopefully he’ll want to come back.
The Bottle Rockets