Marshall Crenshaw, The Bottle Rockets Continental Club April 22, 2012
Sunday's Marshall Crenshaw/Bottle Rockets show again raised the question of whether Houston fans of intelligent, literate rock and roll should be disappointed that our city isn't more interested in this kind of music, or whether we should be grateful shows like this come here at all. (See: Alejandro Escovedo playing to about 50 people at House of Blues' Bronze Peacock Room a couple of years ago.)
I choose to be grateful.
Before about three weeks ago, when this show was announced, I had not spared a thought for either one of these two artists in a long, long time. Obviously, neither had anyone else apart from the 60 or so people who showed up, but thankfully the musicians did not seem to be too disappointed with the turnout.
In turn, the fans were more enthusiastic and appreciative than some crowds I've seen that were twice or even ten times that. It says a lot when artists still give a lights-out show when they don't have to, or when they could have easily phoned it in once they realize their cut might not be so great. That's what guarantees are for, probably.
To call Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets - who opened, then backed Crenshaw in the evening's second half - past their commercial sell-by date implies that they had a commercial sell-by date in the first place. That would almost be true, but not quite.
Crenshaw definitely did, when his song "Someday, Someway" hit the Top 40 about 30 years ago and launched him into the front rank of power-pop alongside Rockpile's Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, the Plimsouls' Peter Case and a few others.
These guys took everything they knew from Buddy Holly and the Beatles - they were almost too square to be New Wave acts, but had an innate understanding of how a couple of chords and a hummable melody could solve almost any problem, except for getting that girl to fall in love with you.
That Crenshaw definitely still has. The songs he played Sunday seemed to chart a course from the early optimism and almost naivete of "Someday" to songs like "Live & Learn" (from his most recent album, 2009's Jaggedland), which are more rooted in realism but do not allow themselves to grow as jaded as the girls he has crushes on ("Cynical Girl").
In between, among the jangly early-R.E.M. hook of "Calling Out for Love" and Del Shannon-ish rocker "Something's Gonna Happen" - and plugging his new Kickstarter project - he grappled with very adult concerns such as the suspicious minds of "Stormy River" and the "intimacy and privacy" of "What Do You Dream Of?," which Crenshaw said he wrote about watching his wife at the time sleep.
The Bottle Rockets, meanwhile, were loosely part of Uncle Tupelo's orbit - singer/guitarist Brian Henneman was in that band before the great post-Anodyne split between Wilco and Son Volt, and got quite a bit of alt-country buzz right after that happened - but the St. Louis four-piece was always a classic-rock band at heart. They more or less acknowledged as much Sunday when Henneman explained a few of their better-known songs Sunday by using a "Springsteen conversion chart." ("Welfare Music," for example, is their "Thunder Road.")
As much as the Bottle Rockets recalled everyone from the Ramones and Husker Du to Neil Young and Foghat (by Henneman's own admission) Sunday, Henneman shares an ear for telling details with both Jeff Tweedy and Springsteen: He can cut to the quick of being broke and busted on tour ("Indianapolis") or empathizing with a lonely woman at a bar ("Smokin' 100s Alone") in just a line or two.
He wrote one song about his wife's love of the bulk-purchase retailer Big/Lots that probably says as much about the band as it does the store: It may not be the hippest place to go, but in terms of sheer value, it's almost unbeatable.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that both Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets aren't trying to change the world - most of the songs they played Sunday can be boiled down to about girls or being a musician - so much as they are express what their small corner of the world looks like as best they can.
In the small corner of the world that came to the Continental Club Sunday, it was one of the nicest surprises I've seen in a long, long time.
Personal Bias: Outside "Someday, Someway," hadn't listened to much Crenshaw before. I blame the system for allowing an artist so keenly cut out for my tastes to almost completely slip through the cracks. Thanks to The Brooklyn Side, in the days when No Depression magazine was still printing on newsprint - strike that, when it was still being printed period - the Bottle Rockets spent the better part of a year as one of my favorite bands. Maybe longer.
The Crowd: Graying older white guys and a few curious younger women.
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Overheard In the Crowd: There weren't really enough people there for anyone to talk over the band loud enough to where I could hear. Again, whether or not that's a bad thing is probably best left to the band and the people paying them.
Random Notebook Dump: Marshall Crenshaw is a dead ringer for Alan Ruck, aka Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. When Cameron was in Egypt land...