The Bottle Rockets lean forward into the past on 20th anniversary tour

The Bottle Rockets perform at Off Broadway in St. Louis on Dec. 7, 2013 -- (from left) John Horton, Mark Ortmann, Brian Henneman and Keith Voegele. // Photo by Angela Kelly
The Bottle Rockets perform at Off Broadway in St. Louis on Dec. 7, 2013 — (from left) John Horton, Mark Ortmann, Brian Henneman and Keith Voegele. // Photo by Angela Kelly

By Barry Gilbert

The Bottle Rockets celebrated the reissue of their first two albums plus their 20th anniversary Saturday night in St. Louis and emphasized from the first note that they would not only look back, they would lean forward. So, in a rather audacious move, the hometown band opened with a new song.

“Monday (Every Time I Turn Around)” was enthusiastically received by a full house at the Off Broadway music venue and was balanced nicely by a couple of songs that have never been recorded by the Bottle Rockets, songs that are among way-back demos included as bonus tracks in the reissue package of the band’s first two albums, “Bottle Rockets” (1993) and “The Brooklyn Side” (1994).

The band, on what frontman Brian Henneman called its “One Foot in the Future, One Foot in the Past” tour, demonstrated again the depth and range of its extraordinary catalogue. The show was one of the best I’ve ever heard the Brox play.

Henneman apparently felt the same way, posting Sunday on Facebook: “Fantastic St. Louis show last night. Maybe my favorite ever.” Later in the day, he wrote: “Saturday, we had a room full of music fans on a cold, snowy night, lovin’ every minute of what we were doin’. We were lovin’ that they were lovin’ it. I guarantee ya we appreciate things like that more than the average music fan’s average rock star does.”

Throughout the show, Henneman kept his between-song chatter, which is never unwelcome, to a minimum, choosing to match musical quality with musical quantity. Bassist Keith Voegele and drummer Mark Ortmann were in tight synch; guitarist John Horton, who joined the band with Voegele about 2006, turned in one of his best nights as a Bottle Rocket; and the interplay between Horton’s and Henneman’s guitars was thrilling.

“Monday,” along with “Smile” and “Big Lots of Love,” is from “an album we haven’t even recorded yet,” Henneman said. It was among 27 songs performed over almost two hours before a packed and enthusiastic audience of fans, friends and family.

The set list included “White Trash” and “Building Chryslers,” those way-back songs that were recorded in 1989 by Henneman and Ortmann with their early band Chicken Truck. They are among 19 bonus tracks on the double-disc reissue of “Bottle Rockets” and “The Brooklyn Side.” Bloodshot Records added to the allure of the package by including a 40-page booklet.

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“Building Chryslers” should have been one of the demos and rarities to find an eventual, official Bottle Rockets release, as did “Indianapolis,” “Get Down River” and “Brand New Year.” Its story of a guy on the auto-building line perfectly fits the blue-collar mine that the Bottle Rockets work, its character sharing many of the attributes of the sad-sack guy who collects workman’s comp in 2003’s “Lucky Break.”

Half of the songs in the setlist were drawn from the reissue set, but that’s not unusual. Many of them have been in constant concert rotation since they first appeared.

“Radar Gun” followed “Monday” to kick off the concert, and then six “Bottle Rockets” cuts were more or less grouped in the first half of the show, separated here and there by Chicken Truck tracks, new songs and later tunes. “Manhattan Countryside,” a slap at rural-area development, made a rare appearance alongside “Hey Moon,” the heartbreaking “Got What I Wanted” and the classics – “Wave That Flag” (the rebel flag has “stars and bars, but it ain’t ours”) and “Kerosene” (“they hated that goddam trailer so it burnt ’em up alive”).

The second half concentrated on songs from “The Brooklyn Side,” the band’s breakthrough album that was picked up from indie East Side Digital Records by major label Atlantic in 1994. The Brox tore through six in a row, including “1,000 Dollar Car,” “I’ll Be Comin’ Around” and “Welfare Music,” featuring Horton and Henneman trading licks.

And all of that great music was just a table-setter. The first of two encores featured a pair of fan requests: “Perfect Far Away,” which is about seeing Dolly Parton in concert; and “Take Me to the Bank” from “The Brooklyn Side” (the fan in this case was Ortmann’s mom).

Encore No. 2 began with sing-along favorite “Indianapolis” (“can’t go west/ can’t go east/ I’m stuck in Indianapolis with fuel pump that’s deceased”) and morphed into a botched attempt by Henneman to cover Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”

Or was it botched? The lyrics substituted for the ones he “forgot” perfectly rhymed and described how he screwed up the lyrics and would make up for it in the next song – “Gravity Fails,” the concert closer from the “The Brooklyn Side.”

Bottle Rockets concerts never get old, probably because these working musicians are so accessible, enthusiastic and well-adjusted. The Ortmann/Henneman 2009 rocker “The Long Way,” which closed the main set, perfectly describes the Bottle Rockets’ career arc as well as their attitude:

“The long way isn’t the wrong way/ a wrong turn isn’t the end/ If it’s understood/ Maybe somethin’ good/ Is comin’ at you ’round the bend.”

Set list

Monday (Every Time I Turn Around) (new)

Radar Gun

Hey Moon

White Trash (Chicken Truck)

Got What I Wanted

Big Lots of Love (new)

Trailer Mama

Manhattan Countryside


Kit Kat Clock

Wave That Flag

Alone in Bad Company

Smile (new)

Building Chryslers (Chicken Truck)

Love Like A Truck

Queen of the World

I’ll Be Comin’ Around

1000 Dollar Car

Idiot’s Revenge

Welfare Music

The Long Way

Encore 1

Perfect Far Away

Get Down River

Take Me to the Bank

Encore 2


Free Fallin’ (Tom Petty)

Gravity Fails


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