Critic's Choice

All Bottled Up

As long as the Bottle Rockets sing about what they know, it's more than likely that there'll be plenty of trendy types who won't care to listen -- even when the band's simple sentiments come in such hook-adorned packages as "Gravity Fails" and "I Wanna Come Home." Both are love songs, but they're hardly sickly sweet, thanks to the homespun wit and beer-tainted delivery of band leader Brian Henneman. It's all part of the trailer-park ethic that infuses The Brooklyn Side, the Bottle Rockets' second release and first to be picked up for distribution by a major label. These four scruffy, unassuming gents from the St. Louis suburb of Festus, Missouri, celebrate the minor joys and tussles that come with being a regular guy -- speed traps, fuel-pump romances, sleeping late and lounging around the house in boxer shorts -- instilling the white-trash lifestyle with more than a little dignity.

The band has received largely positive reviews since the release of its self-titled 1993 debut, but they've also copped the expected amount of grief for their male-centric perspective. But listen closer, and you'll hear there's more to these guys than ESPN, hangovers and used cars. The Brooklyn Side's opener, "Welfare Music," humanizes the debate surrounding government aid, viewing it through the eyes of a young unwed mother and cushioning the despair with fiddle, mandolin and Dobro; "Idiot's Lament" wraps a country boy's response to a female urbanite's putdowns in a defiant honky-tonk romp ("She likes Dinosaur Jr. but she can't tell you why / Says, 'You like country music, man, you deserve to die'"); the lilting, sluggish "What More Can I Do?" paints a humbling portrait of domestic violence.

Henneman cut his teeth as a guitarist in assorted cover bands around the St. Louis area before befriending Uncle Tupelo founders Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. He toured with the band as a guitar tech in its final days, often taking the stage when an extra player was needed. In 1992, after he was offered a deal with the small Minneapolis label East Side Digital, Henneman formed the Bottle Rockets. A few months later, the band -- which also includes drummer Mark Ortmann, bassist Tom Ray and guitarist Tom Parr -- recorded Bottle Rockets in Athens, Georgia, and immediately hit the road.

Henneman and the rest of the Bottle Rockets toured the country in a beat-up van, cultivating the sort of word-of-mouth following that only comes with endless stretches on the road. "The only thing I can figure is that people would rather hear about something they don't know," Henneman says in typically matter-of-fact fashion. "If you're from the city and you hear about these rural guys from this mythical place, maybe that adds some interest to it. It's probably more interesting than living in Festus and having some guys from New York City come to town."

The Bottle Rockets sophomore release, The Brooklyn Side (a bowling term, not a locator tip), was recorded in five days by ex-Del Lord Eric Ambel between drinking binges and barbecues on the roof of a New York City studio. The CD further refines the ideas on the band's debut, celebrating redneck culture while freely acknowledging its drawbacks. Its frayed musical patchwork touches on all the necessary icons, from Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons to Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Crazy Horse and the Georgia Satellites, while never trivializing any of its influences.

With the recent proliferation of a loose movement of salt-of-the-earth country-minded rock bands -- Wilco, the Bottle Rockets, the Jayhawks, Go to Blazes, the Reverend Horton Heat among them -- does Henneman see any one band crossing over into the mainstream?

"Why, the Bottle Rockets will, of course," he laughs.
Seeing the band live, you'd have to agree with him. For a bunch of guys who look like they just crawled from the nearest truck stop, the Bottle Rockets move more earth than a fully loaded John Deere.

-- Hobart Rowland

The Bottle Rockets play at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, September 16 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Dead Hot Workshop opens. Tickets are $7. Call 869-COOL for info.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones -- Even virtuosos have to start somewhere. Banjo wizard Bela Fleck's initial inspiration came in front of the TV, with the Beverly Hillbillies theme, and continued through the dueling-banjos scene in Deliverance. Suitably impressed by "the sound of the instrument," Fleck picked up a banjo of his own at 15, playing what was expected of a teenager growing up in the '70s: Led Zeppelin, Yes, the Grateful Dead -- except that he was throwing down impressive solos on an instrument typically reserved for more down-home applications. Then Chick Corea and his landmark jazz fusion project, Return to Forever, changed Fleck's life for good, as did his first sampling of the traditional bluegrass stylings of Bill Monroe and banjo-wielding renegade John Hartman.

The Flecktones -- the present-day version includes the bassist Victor Wooten and his "drumitar"-playing brother, Roy (a.k.a. "Future Man") -- are an outcropping of Fleck's itch to experiment with jazz and technology. And while his abrupt changes in course have pissed off a few fans along the way, Fleck's passion and technique, which emerge wholeheartedly in concert, surpass any diluted visions or futuristic hokiness. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, Thursday, September 14. 869-8427. (

 
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