While the Bottle Rockets could command a larger venue, it would be a shame to lose the intimacy the quartet fosters at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. Better to play two shows in a small venue that feels like home, instead of one show in a big venue.
Troubadour Otis Gibbs opened with nearly an hour of his acoustic storytelling. He refused to let his songs -- which were full of Midwestern vignettes -- be relegated to background music: Between songs, he called out the talkers, asked for applause and sing-a-longs and extolled the virtues of "manufactured enthusiasm." At first the crowd humored him, but by the end of his set he'd drawn us in with his gruff vocals, humor and enthusiasm. Enough people sang along to drown out the chatters.
The Bottle Rockets stormed the stage with the joyous hop of "Get on the Bus" from its latest album, Lean Forward. With enough energy to fuel a Metro bus, lead singer Brian Henneman ended the song with a jimmy-legged jig that he'd repeat throughout the night.
From there the band blew through five old favorites, including a fiery rendition of "24 Hours a Day" before playing over half of the new album. Although Forward is only two months old, quite a few people easily sang along to the new songs. Its hardest track, "The Way it Used to Be," is a loud, driving tirade from a man unable to shake the bitterness of his life's disappointments. The band transitioned into the album's closer, "Give Me Room," which is filled with the determined resignation of one who's ready to stomp away from the past. While the songs aren't paired on the album, they make a great little rock opera in concert.
Despite the enthusiasm for the new material, the excitement level exploded when the band returned to its classics. For the rest of the set, it barely paused between songs, slowing only a bit for the sing-a-long flood dirge, "Get Down River" before launching into frenzied versions of "I'll be Coming Around," "Thousand Dollar Car" and "Indianapolis."
Last night Henneman and company perfected the combination of country storytelling and punk's energy that started with Uncle Tupelo. It culiminated in "Welfare Music". Sixteen years ago, it was the sad little song that opened their breakthrough album, The Brooklyn Side. The song's relevance has grown over the years. With a lengthened instrumental interlude, the song's true power arrives in silence. The band fades, save for drummer Mark Ortmann's quieted but unbroken patriotic snare beat, Henneman's voice a whisper. "Baby dance circles on the floor/round and round just like before," building into a fever that breaks when the band and crowd shriek into the chorus, making the protest as large as the issue.
During a brief encore that included Neil Young's "Lookout Joe" and the Chuck Berry-infused "Take Me to the Bank", Henneman promised an all-new set list for Saturday's show. "If you didn't hear it tonight, you'll probably hear it tomorrow."