“No LSD, just rocking Texas music, the best stuff in the land”
— Doug Sahm, “Floatway”
To really enjoy Songs of Sahm, you have to forget who the Bottle Rockets are and what they do. They’re a blustery, stompin’ boogie band (with some choice introspective songs as well), and if you listen to Songs of Sahm with an ear toward what they’re not doing, you’ll end up being disappointed. Better to get into the Doug Sahm mindset, because for this record, that’s exactly the space that Brian Henneman and company occupy.
Texas songwriter Doug Sahm was equally comfortable in blues, Cajun, country, and rock, with a strong spiritual allegiance to San Francisco psychedelia. He had some minor hits like “She’s About a Mover” and “Mendocino”, but like many great songwriters, he was more of an influence on other songwriters than he was on the masses. His death in 1999 occurred without much fanfare.
Bottle Rockets frontman Henneman is quick to give Sahm credit as his favorite songwriter, although it’s never been readily apparent in much that the Bottle Rockets have ever done. Henneman’s wry tales of idle worrying like “Kit Cat Clock” might come close, but the Bottle Rockets have built a firm reputation for rockers like “Idiot’s Revenge”, “Radar Gun”, and “Brand New Year” that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a vintage Skynyrd set. Henneman’s lyrics often take notice of the small things and make them mean more than they would initially seem. When he casts an angry eye on society (“Welfare Music”), human failings (“Idiot’s Revenge”), or life’s random cruelty (“Kerosene”), there are few who can get to the heart of the matter with more plain-spoken economy.
So it’s remarkable how well they slip into Sahm’s songs, especially since they select material from Sahm’s later days and not his early, bluesy Texas period. “Mendocino” is jangly and smooth, “She’s About a Mover” bounces in the right places, and bassist Robert Kearns takes a nice vocal turn on “Lawd, I’m Just a Country Boy in this Great Big Freaky City”. A few songs feel kind of silly (“Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day” and “Nitty Gritty”), but the Bottle Rockets hit more than they miss. Their foot-stomping blues rendition of “You Can’t Hide a Redneck (Under that Hippy Hair)” is a natural fit (and the closest the Bottle Rockets come to their signature sound), as is the rousing “I’m Not That Kat Anymore”. With very few exceptions, this sounds like a completely different band; the Bottle Rockets don’t go for a synthesis of their sound and Sahm’s — the completely defer to Sahm.
The recent string of Bottle Rockets shows have showcased a mixture of the band’s material and the Sahm songs, and the difference is especially telling there. In a live setting, with the guitar more upfront, the Sahm songs feel like they have more of a link. Still, there’s a separation there, much like when a band uses a few ballads to take a break. There’s such a different sentiment to Sahm’s tie-dyed desert songs that it’s a little jarring.
Because of that, Songs of Sahm is a difficult album to get your head around. It doesn’t fit at all into the Bottle Rockets canon, but it’s a splendid tribute to Sahm — probably the next best thing to a compilation of Sahm’s actual recordings. If you’re a Bottle Rockets fan, though, go ahead and listen to The Brooklyn Side first. Get it out of your system. Then put on Songs of Sahm and hear the Bottle Rockets assume a totally new identity.