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Blue Sky, then, is a record of subtle risks, personal but significant changes. In the past year, both Henneman and Kearns have quit drinking -- "I didn't even know Robert had quit," Henneman confides -- and the band's live shows have improved exponentially.
"After all these years we're finally making music," Henneman says. "On stage it doesn't sound that different but it feels different, because I'm sober. I'm not stumbling over strings or playing some stupid song nobody knows. We are in control instead of the crowd being in control. It used to be, someone would yell out some stupid song, I'd start playing it, then the whole show crumbles down. I'd crank my amp up, then the stage sound is gone, then I'm frickin' screaming, and I blow my voice, and then the next night I can't sing. It was this evil thing that we did for ten years. Is it any wonder Wilco is more popular?"
"It's a slow maturing," Ortmann says, "even though that implies all the wrong things. It was tough, back in the old days, but I stuck it out. People ask me how I could take it, given the drunken history of the band. But I believed in the music; maybe I was naive."
The band's refreshed live sound has also been shaped by their newest member, St. Louis guitarist John Horton, a humble perfectionist and sly avatar of tone and texture. Horton had been a longtime fan of the Bottle Rockets -- "I always got what they were doing," he says -- but he had built his reputation as a country player, and his new band demanded new sounds.
"Brian is a get-it-and-go guitarist," Horton explains. "That nerve you're always hoping to touch, he goes for it immediately. I tend to think about things a bit more. I love textural things. I've spent the last ten years trying to get the perfect country-guitar sound, and now things have come full circle, and now I'm thinking about a rock-guitar sound. I haven't done that forever."
The Bottle Rockets, however, have not come full circle. After years of persistent frustration and occasional chaos, they've found a new commitment, direction and focus. "We did a show in Chicago with Jason Ringenberg, and he said, 'You're one of the only bands where you changed members and you actually got better,'" Kearns relates. "I guess we're as good as we're gonna get, 'cause we can't replace Brian and Mark."