[5 December 2011]
While the Midwestern heartland of America has been a hotbed of roots rock for decades, it has also proved to be somewhat of a musical Bermuda Triangle. Bands like The Skeletons, The Texas Instruments, and Dash Rip Rock packed many a bar in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but like the scores of others cut from that thrift store cloth, they failed to catch the freak indie-rock wave that carried bands like Uncle Tupelo towards larger success. The splintering of Uncle Tupelo in 1996 fostered the Jay Farrar-led Son Volt as well as Wilco, helmed by Jeff Tweedy. Wilco’s debut A.M. featured lead guitar work from fellow Festus, MO string slinger Brian Henneman, himself a late-period UT touring sideman.
Henneman demurred to guitarist/keysman Jay Bennett in the touring Wilco lineup, as he helmed his own band called The Bottle Rockets, local favorite sons infamous for putting out one of the most rip-roaring live shows you could ever have the pleasure of hearing. Bottle Rockets ultimately found commercial success to be as elusive as their predecessors. An ill-fated union with Atlantic offered a fleeting chance of crossover success in the late ‘90s, but today, in the wake of poor sales, great records like their self-titled debut and 1998’s The Brooklyn Side lie fallow. Both those early releases are currently out of print, as is their Atlantic output, leaving most of their early output only available via the 2006 Live In Heilbronn record.
While time cannot be accused of being especially kind to Bottle Rockets, the passing years have obviously left founding members Henneman and Mark Ortmann not only older, but wiser. Perhaps most paramount is that Henneman has embraced sobriety in recent years. That lifestyle change and years of ear-splitting live shows have found more acoustic shows finding their way into the Bottle Rockets performance schedule. Appropriate, as most of the BR canon was written on acoustic, but no official release had ever captured that side of the band. Luckily, we can now consider that situation rectified.
Not So Loud comes courtesy of your friends at Bloodshot Records, capturing tracks from two live acoustic shows the band recorded earlier this year in a converted St. Louis schoolhouse called Lucas School House. Now shuttered, the venue was lauded for its second floor gymnasium, a room considered one of the finest venues in St. Louis. Thirteen tracks were culled from two sold-out shows and are captured on Not So Loud for your listening pleasure. The proceedings open on a nostalgic note with a faithful take on “Early In The Morning”, a song recognizable to long-time fans as the opening track to their eponymous ESD debut. Drummer Mark Ortmann is the only mainstay from that initial lineup, with guitarist John Horton and Keith Voegele joining the fold over their last two Bloodshot releases. The four have coalesced nicely over the last four or five years, and the synergy is palpable. Horton is a particularly sympathetic foil to Henneman here, playing pretty much anything with strings. Brian Henneman is a formidable presence despite his self-deprecating banter. His stories about the tracks on “Not So Loud” lend evidence to the fact that he is equally dangerous with a songwriting pen and acoustic or electric six-strings. Hell-raising fans of the raucous electric Bottle Rockets live show may be taken aback by the stripped down revisitations here, but the snapshots of life and love on Not So Loud are all the more poignant in stripped-down form, asserting Bottle Rockets as one of the finest roots rock bands in America today.