A block away from Off Broadway at sundown, you could see the glint of light on pearl snaps and smell the macaroni and cheese, bacon and apple butter melting on Texas toast. It was the final night of the first Open Highway Music Festival and the Cheese Shack food truck was cooking. Looking for jam bands and veggie wraps? Try another ZIP code.
The brainchild of club owner Steve Pohlman and booking agent/songwriter John Henry (who was a late add to an already flush bill), the quasi-Twangfest featured acts like the Turnpike Troubadours, the John D. Hale Band, Will Hoge, William Elliott Whitmore and, on this night, Ben Nichols of Lucero and headliners the Bottle Rockets. You can't kill roots rock with a deep-fried, heart-attack sandwich and you can't build an altar for alt-country Valhalla on empty Stag half-quarts, but you can try.
St. Louis rockers John Henry & the Engine had the kind of crowd they deserve - a good 100 plus, pushed in around the stage, with more than a few bar-rock nymphs singing along - and played the kind of set for which they're known: nothing held back, certainly not by the pummeling rhythm section, and not by Henry, who pulled out all the desperate-young-man histrionics. A new song, perhaps titled "Broken City," had some of Henry's tidiest hooks and "Sad Face of Yours" raced along to a "really, really simple beat" and had the crowd clapping in time - at least until the histrionics returned with Henry mic-stand-rubbing and coddling his guitar like a prodigal pet. He's got the right band and the right songs to follow in the footsteps of songwriterly rockers like Will Hoge, but - let's just put our cards on the table - one still has to get past the voice, which has grown wheezier with his hard-working years on stage.
I suppose I should save this for the "Personal Bias" section of the Critic's Notebook (see end of the review), but Lucero and its front man Ben Nichols have long struck me, a fully-credentialed twang-rock lifer, as problematic, bordering on plaguey. There's a very fine line between preaching the godless gospel of Southern-proletariat life and the clichés of bars, guns and six-string guitars. Sometimes Nichols and his band manage to make that iconography transcendent - see this year's Women & Work, Lucero's most musically-satisfying album - but sometimes they don't, and one is left with prosaic, life-is-shit-so-let's-get-drunk-and-smoke-cigarettes nihilism.
Stripped of his band, Nichols' solo set veered wildly between these outcomes. "Sound all right out there?" he asked. "Yeah? Well I can do something about that." As if to prove the point he promptly flubbed "Chambers," the first of four or five such false starts. No one expects a seamless set from Nichols, and he seemed genuinely happy to be testing the strength of his songs against a burly bunch of dudes who bellowed and finger-pointed to every other chorus. The title track to "Women & Work" had a sweet rockabilly rhythm, almost swinging, and mid-set high point "Toadvine," another selection from the solo EP The Last Pale Light in the West, offered a glimmer of redemptive grace in the lines "I don't see nothing but the light." I considered lightening the mood by crushing some PBR cans on my head, but no one would take the bait and fight me. The crowd was fully into singing along to excellent set-ender "Nights Like These."
Have the Bottle Rockets played a St. Louis date since March 2011, when the band opened for James McMurtry at the Pageant? (If so, I welcome the correction.) The Off Broadway space wasn't at the capacity this gig deserved, and at 10:30 p.m. the quartet - Brian Henneman, John Horton, Keith Voegele and Mark Ortmann - went full-faders-up into "Big Lotsa Love," which could have been a lost Tom Petty song - and not just because Henneman was sporting a cherry Rickenbacker guitar -- but was in fact a new, unreleased, original tune. From there the Brox just burned like a climate-change prairie fire, small amps crackling like tinder through "Every Kind of Everything" and "Get on the Bus," the latter played, faster and faster and still faster yet at Henneman's delighted urging.