The Bottle Rockets and Lucinda Williams Just seeing Lucinda Williams on stage -- a middle-aged woman with bleached-out hair, standing five-foot-something and a hundred-and-something pounds -- can evoke an uncanny familiarity. Take away the guitar and plop her down in the produce isle of a nowheresville supermarket, and you may have known her your whole life: the divorcée with a string of tough ex-boyfriends who looks good in Levis and could probably run truck-driving cowboys off the pool table at five bucks a game. When she plays her guitar and offers up cracked confessionals of screwed-up love, untimely death and dusty country roads, that impression of familiarity really takes hold. Even if you don't know Lucinda Williams, you've probably known someone like her.
Of course, if you ever were to actually meet the reluctant alt-country idol, she probably wouldn't be anything like what you'd imagined. But listening to the most recent trio of Williams's records, 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, 2001's Essence and 2003's World Without Tears, it's impossible not to project the nervy narratives onto their narrator. It's impossible to not take the rich poetic details that color her songs as fact. When World Without Tears's plaintive ballad "Those Three Days" recounts the tale of a painfully brief love affair ("Did you only want me for those three days? Did you only need me for those three days? Did you love me forever just for those three days?"), Williams's song craft shows its particular magic. It transforms us from listeners into sympathetic friends. That magic may be a partial explanation for her insatiable, obsessive fans, and those fans may be a partial explanation for her reclusive nature. All told, whether you're familiar with Williams's stories or not, seeing her tell them is like hearing them from the mouth of an old friend. Damn, Lu, it's good to see you again.
And the same can be said of the Bottle Rockets. First, though, let's get one thing straight. They might be lumped into the "alt-country" and "Americana" bag, but the truth of the matter is, the Bottle Rockets are really just an American rock and roll band of the first order. Sure, country music had its influence on their eloquently plain-spoken songs about real people and real life. And any band from the Mississippi River town of Festus, Missouri, is bound to be steeped in the essence of Americana.
But at the end of the day -- round about midnight, when the rocking is good -- the Bottle Rockets are an American band. They're coming to your town to help you party down -- and make you think while you do it, since these Midwestern redneck rockers have the brains as well as the balls to blow the roof off your favorite joint. Their latest bio sums it up by describing them as John Prine meets Crazy Horse, though Waylon Jennings fronting the Georgia Satellites might be a bit more apropos. Whatever. The point is this: Just because the music is simple, loud and butt-shaking doesn't mean it doesn't have depth.
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In fact, their latest CD, Blue Sky, might be the band's most cogent and accessible work to date. Co-produced by Gov't Mule guitar hero Warren Haynes, it's rife with six-string riches, as any rock and roll record should be. And never has their palette of roots styles been integrated so seamlessly, lifting the group away from limiting labels to the simple yet broad style it's always offered -- real rock and roll. It's something that's all too rare these days, and by now, a good decade (and personnel changes and even intra-band fistfights) into the game, the Bottle Rockets have scrapped their way to the top of the heap. It don't get no better than this if ya wanna rock. And who doesn't?