What is a bar band? It’s undeniably hard to describe, even harder to define. But as Justice Potter Stewart famously declared in 1964 speaking then about pornography, I know it when I see it. Or in this case, hear it. The Bottle Rockets are the best bar band I know. Hell, they’re my favorite band of the last 25 years, period. But they’re never going to hit it real big, and many people, even music fans, may not have heard of them. That’s their lot. So be it.
What kind of music do they play? Some would say roots rock, Americana, maybe some outlaw country, a little cow-punk, and definitely alt-country (and a damn sight better than those soppy critics’ darlings Wilco). But I might best say they’re just one hell of an ass-kicking bar band. Their songwriter and bandleader, Brian Henneman, can write records like Springsteen, depicting stories and characters in the hard-luck heartland, and they can rock like The Replacements, playing snarling, searing rock and roll that positively mows down pretenders in its path. They’re based in St. Louis, originating nearby in Festus, Missouri, and have put out a total of 12 albums, every single one of which I adore. On their last one, 2015’s South Broadway Athletic Club, my friend Greg and I were actually two of the credited Executive Producers – something made possible by our hefty donations of $45 apiece to their recording and production costs, allowing us to be so listed in the liner notes along with a couple hundred other true believers.
But if I had to pick a favorite album, it would be the one on which I initially discovered them, 2006’s Zoysia. The first two tracks, ‘Better Than Broken’ and ‘Middle Man’, sound more like Crazy Horse-era Neil Young than, well, Crazy Horse-era Neil Young itself (forgive me, I’m a bit fanatical). Man, it was that incredible fuzzy guitar sound; some guitar tech would have to explain how Henneman did it. But here I’m spotlighting track 4, ‘Happy Anniversary’, an account of a man at a party seeing a long-ago ex he’s still not over. It contains in its second half, an absolutely blistering combination of playing by Henneman and John Horton trading lead guitar attacks, as well as the rhythm section of Mark Ortmann and Keith Voegele who contribute drum and bass fills, respectively, that make the piece fully combust. It also encompasses in its first half among my favorite of Henneman’s stanzas: “Should have never left you / But this is what I get / A plastic plate of sorrow / From a buffet of regret.” I got a chance to chat with the sometimes cantankerous Henneman after a show at New York’s City Winery a few years back and, perhaps too much like a fan boy, told him how much I loved that ‘buffet of regret’ line. “Hey man,” he replied slowly and with a slight sneer, “We’ve all got ‘em.” That we do, Brian. And though I certainly have an ample buffet myself, I’m grateful one of its dishes need not be having missed out on the greatest bar band ever.