May 2, 2022
Oct 23, 2018
By Kasey Anderson &
“Under-appreciated” is a tricky label, especially when applied within the context of a discussion about art. If one were to say the Bottle Rockets are an under-appreciated band, the claim would imply the existence of some sort of rock ‘n’ roll meritocracy, and no such thing exists (as evidenced by the popularity of Greta Van Fleet). To label a band as under-appreciated also carries with it the implication that said band is somehow less critically and/or commercially successful than is deserved, and there’s no objective way to measure that; there is no metric for what any given band “deserves” to sell or draw.
We cannot say, then, that the Bottle Rockets are an under-appreciated band. We can, however, acknowledge that over the course of their 25+ year career, the Bottle Rockets have come to be taken for granted -- a band without which the genre of Americana may not exist, though front man and chief songwriter Brian Henneman would insist (rightfully) the genre has always existed. Henneman was the primary guitarist on Wilco’s AM, an album often cited as essential within the Americana (née Alt.Country, née Country Rock, etc.) canon. Shortly after the release of AM, Henneman and Co. made their own contributions to the canon with the Eric Ambel-produced album The Brooklyn Side and its follow-up, 24 Hours a Day.
Every few years, the Bottle Rockets crank out another reminder that they’re one of the most dependably great Americanalt.countryrock outfits of the last three decades and often, Ambel has been on board as producer and auxiliary Rocket. Their new album, Bit Logic, is just such a reminder — by turns acerbic, swaggering, and tender.
It’s a Bottle Rockets record, after all. Maybe Bit Logic is the record that will find the Bottle Rockets on the podium for next year’s Americana Awards, accepting a trophy they would very richly deserve, if there were such a thing as merit in art. If the AMAs don’t take note, Bottle Rockets fans can take solace in the quality of the work, and in the knowledge that the next album will likely be just as good as Bit Logic; just as good as The Brooklyn Side or 24 Hours a Day. It will be a Bottle Rockets record, after all.
We cornered the laconic Henneman for a few questions about the new record.
How long did you work on this batch of a dozen songs?
Not that long really. They were all written pretty fast, and pretty last minute. It was our most immediate album. We didn't even rehearse them. They were born in the studio, everybody just going off of acoustic demos I made. Just me and a guitar.
I notice Roscoe Ambel, who produced this record, will actually be opening for y'all on some of your upcoming tour dates. How far back does your collaborative history go with him?
We met Eric right after our first album came out in 1993. He first started working with us in 1994. We've worked together off and on ever since. He's good for us. He's "The George Martin Of The Bottle Rockets."
The Bottle Rockets are regularly mentioned in the same breath with the other pioneers -- for lack of a better word -- of alt country, having come of age in the mid 1990s. You yourself were part of the Uncle Tupelo crew, and I think you might have played on an early Wilco album. Do you ever reflect on being part of the foundation of a musical scene? What if anything does it mean to you personally?
I was the guitarist on Wilco’s A.M. I don't think about this at all, 'cause I'm old enough to know this was not the birth of this kind of scene. It's existed for years. It just gets unearthed with every new batch of writers. Right before this wave we're associated with, there were bands like Rank & File, The Long Ryders, Jason & The Scorchers, etc. You can take it back to CCR if you wanna. Hell, Elvis mighta started it. It's all the same deal: Country/Blues with electric guitars adding up to rock and roll. They didn't really give it its own category name 'til our wave though. But it's been around a long time.
You once described The Bottle Rockets as "reporters from the heartland," and there's a blue-collar, everyman ethos is a trademark of your music. You're kind of a contrarian -- some might say ornery. Then you drop a poignant, tender ballad like "Silver Ring." Tell me about that song's inspiration.
Our drummer Mark wrote that one. We liked it, so we did it. It's a sentiment I can get behind...
Y'all recorded a live album in Germany several years ago. I've asked other artists about this phenomenon: A lot of roots-type acts from the U.S. find really strong support in Europe. Why do you think that is?
I don't know why, but they have more interest and respect for American roots music. That fact is pretty much what brought us the Stones, and Clapton and whatnot. They seem to have more interest in our musical roots than we have in theirs. Maybe even more than we have in our own. Don't know why. They're just cool like that.
The title cut of the album has an old-man-shaking-fist quality to it; how annoyed are you, really, with modern technology? Show your work.
The album is really more about coming to terms with it, than shaking a fist at it. But if you are old enough, a distaste for it will come through. I'm old enough. I vividly remember when people were smart enough to know how idiotic and dangerous it would be to read and type while driving a car.
Finally, I have to ask about a song from the first BR album I ever bought, "Waitin' on a Train." So gut-wrenching, and it literally has a train wreck quality to it -- I can't not listen all the way through. Where did that song come from?
Bob Parr, the bass player in my old band Chicken Truck wrote that one. You'd have to ask him. Another one we liked, so we did it.
May 10, 2018
Leon III's debut album begins with a Grateful Dead-esque loopy guitar intro and then the heavy twang of a familiar voice. The band's background info describes them as a psychedelic Americana group, and based on the opening seconds, you'd have to say that's about right.
The voice you recognize is that of Andy Stepanian, the head ass of the Wrinkle Neck Mules, a long under-appreciated alt-country outfit from Virginia. Mason Brent of the Mules is on guitar. Leon III is a bringing together of this duo's rustic aesthetic with the smoother sounds of acts like Wilco and the experimentation of jam and indie rock. While that may sound like an odd mixture, it's not a far cry from a lot of the alt-country I listened to in the early 2000s.
The band is rounded out by drummer Brian Kotzur of Silver Jews, pianist Tony Crow, singer Jordan Caress, and guitarist Chris Scruggs - Scruggs as in the grandson of Earl - this is a top notch collaboration of musicians.
So, I've listed the influences and ingredients, but what does Leon III sound like? Downtrodden folk rock might be the best descriptive. Stepanian's gruff vocals combined with the softer textures laid down behind him is an intoxicating presentation. For me, the familiarity with Wrinkle Neck Mules' jubilance made it an even more disconcerting experience at first. It's not a challenging listen, but it's a challenge to absorb this album. The reward is worth repeated listens.
The album is meant to be digested as a whole, but there are a few standout tracks for me. "Faded Mountain" is driven by bass and drums, punctuated by piano and steel guitar. It's one of the quieter moments on Leon III, but the simplicity of the sounds and the poetry of the lyrics make it one of the more poignant.
"Alberta" is the heart of this record. It's a slow build of a song about realizing you'll never have it all. The progression of this track will raise the hairs on your arms - horns push the horizon higher and Stepanian's yearning grows then fades. It's an emotional trip.
"Between the Saddle and the Ground" talks about the swiftness in which salvation can be found, even in the fleeting moments. It's constructed around a William Camden quote referred to on the Dead's "China Doll." The tune is reverential to the Dead, but the sound is pure epic Americana.
Leon III isn't an easy album to love, but once you've let it seep in for a few listens, it won't leave your mind or soul. This is emotional, intelligent, artful music in an era of throwaway culture. If you dig Wrinkle Neck Mules, Silver Jews, Wilco, or any act in between, it's well worth your investment to give this record a few spins.
Mar 20, 2018
Oct 19, 2017
When your Americana band's new
guitarist used to be in a hair metal group
Kane Brown has a #1 song???
I've accidentally broken 2 Cody CDs.
I guess you could say I'm a ....Jinks
The hardest thing to do when
listening to Lady Antebellum
When partying at the lake ain't all beer
and babes like FGL taught you...
When Mr. Vorhees finds a pile of
Sam Hunt CDs
When Mr. Vorhees walks by some
kids cranking hick-hop
Jeff Tweedy! No, Jay Farrar!!
Oct 5, 2017
Feb 3, 2017
By Kevin Broughton
In the spring of 1997 Son Volt released its second and most underrated album, three years removed from the breakup of alt country’s most important band, Uncle Tupelo. A discussion of this gem requires a few stipulations up front.
There are Wilco guys and Son Volt guys, with very little overlap. If you’re a Wilco guy we probably can’t be friends, since you took sides with the home-wrecking, slimy snake Jeff Tweedy.* While Uncle Tupelo was probably not built to go the distance due to stylistic differences between Tweedy and Jay Farrar, the proximate cause of the band’s breakup was the former’s hitting on the latter’s girlfriend (now wife). Besides, Wilco made one good album. It was called A.M. I think we’re done here.
If someone tells you he understands the meaning of Jay Farrar’s lyrics, he will lie to you again. Okay, maybe someone with a PhD in philosophy and literature grasps them, but probably not. There have been obvious signs – going back to Uncle Tupelo – he’s on a different intellectual plane from mere mortals. Who uses words like farcical, paradigm, caryatid and workaday masses? In songs, I mean. I’d say he’s on the same level as Rush’s Neil Peart, but if you’ve read enough Ayn Rand you can decode 2112.
Nobody has a voice like Jay’s. That voice is what makes Son Volt sui generis – more than the writing, more than the punk-meets-country musical mash-ups. It seems as tough to describe as his lyrics are to decipher. Jay’s songs are one subset I never attempt to cover on the rare occasions I play in public. I once called his ability to slide up and down the register without going off key as “dude can harmonize with himself.” A good friend – and a much better musician than I – did it one better: “He’s always about a quarter flat, but it works.”
All that being said, let’s move to the recollection proper.
For most if not all Son Volt fans, 1995’s Trace isn’t just the band’s best album, but one of very few records that are the benchmarks for all of alt country that came after. Viewed historically, they have a point that’s hard to argue. Farrar recruited Uncle Tupelo’s drummer Mike Heidorn and the Boquist brothers, Jim (bass, backing vocals) and Dave (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, lap steel) for the band’s first iteration. And thanks to VH-1, “Drown” became their one bona fide radio hit. That lineup would last for two more albums and tours, plus a one-off in 2001 for a benefit for Alejandro Escovedo. Wide Swing Tremolo signaled Jay’s entry into well, weirdness, and a couple of solo albums that were, frankly, borderline unlistenable.
But Straightaways was the perfect follow-up album. It’s Trace’s closest cousin, with its balanced mix of driving rockers and contemplative ballads. “Caryatid Easy” comes hard out of the gate with the same frenetic, stop-go pacing that made “Drown” such a hot hit. Heidorn’s drum strikes don’t drive the beat; they fill space in a song loaded with the tempo changes that were an Uncle Tupelo trademark.
And then, a calm, lilting, reassuring change of pace in “Back into Your World.” If we were living still in the age of 45s, would there be a more perfect flip side to “Tear Stained Eye” on Trace? Heck, no. And as stated, decoding Farrar’s lyrics is best left to those invited to the annual MENSA picnic. Yet here is some rare, low-hanging fruit: “Leave this impasse, if you’re gonna leave anything. Just don’t leave here without speaking your mind.” Poetry, and set perfectly to a gently flowing acoustic guitar melody.
Then we’re jacked up again with the rat-a-tat staccatos of “Picking Up the Signal.” Two things in particular strike you about the up-tempo numbers on this album. The arrangements are unconventional, bordering on reckless. Riff-driven with a declaratory opening line or two, they flail through a path that leads to a climax – with no rhyme or reason as to placement of chorus or bridge or verse. And, it works because of the tight pocket formed by Heidorn’s drums and Jim Boquist’s big thumb. (And oh yeah: what sweet harmonies.)
There’s a perfect flow to the whole thing, too. “Last Minute Shakedown,” “No More Parades” (with its wonderfully placed and paced banjo) and “Creosote” are the ideal counterweights throughout, placed just so. And they’re actually light, compared to the balance of Farrar’s body of work. With a couple of exceptions, of course.
“Been Set Free,” is swampy and foreboding. Downbeat-laden and moody, its liberation seems to come with a high price, punctuated with heavy harp and warbling vocals: I’ve been loaded down…now I’ve been set free.
In November of 1996, Son Volt hit the big stage: Austin City Limits, in the middle of a tour supporting Trace. One song from a yet unnamed album would make that night’s set list.
In the intervening years, Farrar and the varying lineups of Son Volt would meander. The closest they’d come to Trace-esque sound would, in my estimation, be 2007’s The Search. And 2013 would see the homecoming of the band’s entire fan base, in a collective “Yes!” upon the release of Honky Tonk. Pure Bakersfield country, with man-sized helpings of double fiddle and pedal steel. Parenthetically, the last time I saw our intrepid publisher in person was at a Jackson, Miss. show on that tour. (And Jay signed my guitar, though only through an intermediary/roadie.) In less than two weeks, they’ll --heck, it’s just Jay and his band, who am I kidding? -- release Notes of Blue, and we hope to review it before then.
But back to the Austin City Limits gig from Armistice Day 1996. You want to see Son Volt at its peak? Here they are, doing the one song from the set not plucked from Trace. “Left A Slide” may be the most Son Volt song ever; and yes, from its best album, Straightaways. Behold, in all its haunting transcendence:
*You think I hold a grudge? Jay did a memoir (really a collection of short vignettes) in 2013. He refers to Tweedy as simply “the bass player.” Uncle Tupelo is “the touring band.” He should have whipped the bass player’s ass, then left.
May 1, 2016
Apr 27, 2016
When you hear Florida-Georgia Line has another #1 song
How you'll feel when you hear Larry Hooper's new album
Reading the comments on a Luke Bryan YouTube video like...
When your friend says "Wanna stay and watch some CMT?"
Waiting for country radio to play a country song like...
Why you would be a Jason Aldean fan
Wilco! Son Volt! Wilco! Son Volt!...
Jun 13, 2015
Sep 6, 2013
Apr 6, 2013
Mar 7, 2013
May 5, 2011
I enjoyed a full three days of music this past Friday through Sunday at Tom Lee Park on the banks of Old Man River. We started the weekend with nice temperatures and blue skies, an almost unheard of combination for the Beale Street Music Festival, whose name has become synonymous with rain, mud and rain. Still, the mighty Mississippi was swollen and forecast to spill over its banks within days so our watery backdrop was immense and threatening.
CAGE THE ELEPHANT
The first show we went to was Cage the Elephant. They were loud, obnoxious, young and pretty ragged, sound-wise. Of course, that fits their punkish persona and it worked well. The lead singer told us he was spaced out on pain pills due to a tooth extraction a couple days previous, but it didn't show. He was nuts, all over the stage and screaming his lungs out. We listened to about 8 songs, including "In One Ear," "Around My Head" and "Aberdeen" before departing to catch the end of Everclear's set the next stage down.
I'll never claim to be a huge fan of Art Alexakis and company, but I did enjoy several of their songs from the late 90's and early 00's. I can't say Everclear sounded especially enthused Friday night, but the band was tight and Art's voice sounded good. It was a greatest hits set-list, thankfully leaving out some of their dreadful cover songs. Curiously, their sound was a lot lower than other bands we heard and the mix was kind of flat. Still, they did a solid job with favorites like "Wonderful," "Everything to Everyone" and "Santa Monica," which Art said had bought him a couple of houses and a couple of divorces.
We took a beer break after Everclear, not caring to journey back down to see MGMT or B.o.B. and far from enthused by Slightly Stoopid. However, Stone Temple Pilots, the night's headliner was after the aforementioned stoner band, so we eventually pushed our way through beardy hippies and smoke-clouds to get a good spot for STP. While obviously a musically talented band, as evidenced by a couple of rocking songs, including a spot-on cover of Nirvana's "Territorial Pissings," Slightly Stoopid stuck to the Sublime-meets-jam band sound that they've obviously built their career on. I'm sure for tokers and diehards, the band is great, but I didn't care for their set at all.
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS
I'm an unabashed fan of STP. They weren't exactly on my "must see bands" list, but still, I don't see them as the faux-grunge garbage band as many rock snobs do. I didn't know what to expect from the recently re-formed group, given Scott Weiland's sketchy history on and off-stage. I'm happy to say they rocked Tom Lee Park. Sprinkling three songs from their newest self-titled album in with a ton of hits like "Plush" and "Interstate Love Song," STP was tight as they could be and sounded great. Scott Weiland was pleasantly weird, dancing around like tribesman by a fire and interjecting odd statements and prayers at a moment's notice. And despite a couple of audience members trying to bait him into a meltdown, he maintained his composure and vocals throughout. I'd have to count them among the best live hard-rock bands I've seen.
True to the rep of the Beale Street Music Festival, the rain came Saturday. Not much, but it continued a streak.
This was my first highly anticipated artist of the festival and Paul did not disappoint. He was funny, humble, soulful and a helluva entertainer. Peppering in self-deprecating jokes and homespun wisdom, Paul had the crowd engaged for the full set. Besides being a great singer and songwriter, he came across as a genuinely down-to-earth guy with an almost innocent appreciation for the attention he was being given and the artists he was sharing the stage with. His set included my favorite of his, "Love Scar," along with others like "A Lot of Good Reasons" and "I Have a Good Day." He and his band tore the place down with the rollicking closer "Mission Temple Fireworks Stand," leaving everybody wanting more than an hour and a half festival show could give us.
JERRY LEE LEWIS
Do I really need to write anything else besides his name? The man's a freaking legend. While frail of body, a bit weak of voice and fairly rambling between tunes, The Killer put on an awesome show, proving there's still plenty of fire in the tank. He did all the favorites, a few classic covers and, of course, he ended with "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'." He even summoned up the strength to do his trademark "playing while standing up" towards the end. Wonderful and unforgettable.
MUMFORD AND SONS
The band sounded great, performing nearly their entire debut album along with 2 or 3 new songs from the album they're about to record. They were tight as hell and very engaging with the crowd. Their performance is not so much the story here as their audience. It was by far the biggest crowd of the entire event, massive even. A friend of mine who'd seen Dave Matthews Band at Beale a few years ago said it was far larger than DMB's audience. Also, the crowd seemed to know every word and reacted to the songs like The Beatles themselves were on stage. I had no idea they were so popular. In a day and age of segmented tastes and fan-bases, this was the one act that seemed to bring everyone together. We'll see how that holds up in the fickle wind of pop culture.
Lucinda was in great voice and her band was tight. Her song selection, however, mirrored my general impression of her most recent work… it was tepid for the most part. She did "Joy," "Can't Let Go" and "Buttercup," among others, which I enjoyed. The rest was fairly bland; certainly not providing much excitement. I wasn't thrilled with the set.
John sounded awesome and his band was even better. They were thoroughly impressive. The theme of his set seemed to be flipping songs on their heads. The songs from his recent stripped-down album were played with bombast and vigor by the full band, bringing life to tunes that to me were just okay on record. The hits were played either stripped down or with completely new arrangements. It was very cool. The crowd ate it up, and John was funny and conversational. A side-note: I saw the well-known liberal and environmentalist the next day climbing into a massive black SUV to leave his 5-star hotel :).
The rain came in sheets Sunday, and the river was up another foot or so, now lapping at the sidewalks just beyond the side retaining walls of the park. Despite the weather and the impending flooding, the festival thankfully went on mostly as scheduled.
Farce the Music's house band started without the benefit of a soundcheck due to a tornado warning earlier. I and my listening party had hunkered down in a trolley stop, but we made it safely, but muddily to the concert on time. Ben Nichols admitted the sound was a "clusterf*ck" but it really wasn't bad at all. They were as solid as ever despite the lack of preparation and the weather-diminished crowd. They ran through what Ben termed as "our greatest hits…. or at least uh, local favorites" including "My Tears Don't Matter Much" and "Sixes and Sevens." They also threw in one new tune that will be on their next record called "Women and Work." It was even more in the Memphis R&B direction than most of the songs on their last release. Good stuff. Horn section and everything. Lucero NEVER disappoints.
Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of Gregg nor the Allman Brothers, but this was a nice show. He performed solo tunes and legendary favorites alike, including "Just Another Rider," "Whipping Post" and an especially moving rendition of "Melissa."
Some girls started mud-sliding during the end of Allman's show. It was very entertaining and some people even started a tip cup for them.
THE AVETT BROTHERS
Another huge crowd for another hot band. The Avetts were loose, loud and awesome. The longest soundcheck I've ever endured yielded the best sounding set of the weekend. Seriously, I'm a fan, but The Avetts blew me away. They were energetic and lively and the crowd ate it up. Selections included "Shame," "Will You Return?," the Prine cover "Spanish Pipedream" and the lovely closer "I and Love and You." If you like bluegrass or newgrass or indie-folk, you owe it to yourself to catch the bros. Killer, killer show! (Another side-note: During the set, the crowd gasped as a river boat rolled by virtually right beside us - see photo.)
I'm assuredly on the Farrar side of the Jay or Jeff argument. However, Wilco this Sunday night made me stand up and realize the utter talent of the more commercially successful splinter of Uncle Tupelo. They were amazing. Forgive me for not knowing the guitarist's name, but he was stunningly good. I've seen some 80 live acts in my life and I'd count him as the best guitar player I've ever seen live (ahead of the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Kirk Hammett). Wilco, despite a nearly 7 month break from playing live, confidently crushed a set that included "Shot in the Arm," "Monday," "Jesus, etc." and probably the best tune I've ever seen played live, "Impossible Germany." I'm not a big fan of the band's recent releases, but I'm now a huge fan of Wilco. Tweedy was great, in excellent voice and in harmony with the crowd. His best between-song line of the night was regarding the scent of barbecue and sausage wafting through the air, "We may become the anti-Morrisey after this. We won't play a show unless we smell burning meat." All hail Wilco.
Jeff Tweedy and crew