Open Highway Music Festival at Off Broadway, 8/11/12: Review, Photos and Setlists

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The Bottle Rockets at Open Highway Music Festival - ROY KASTEN
  • Roy Kasten
  • The Bottle Rockets at Open Highway Music Festival

A block away from Off Broadway at sundown, you could see the glint of light on pearl snaps and smell the macaroni and cheese, bacon and apple butter melting on Texas toast. It was the final night of the first Open Highway Music Festival and the Cheese Shack food truck was cooking. Looking for jam bands and veggie wraps? Try another ZIP code.

The brainchild of club owner Steve Pohlman and booking agent/songwriter John Henry (who was a late add to an already flush bill), the quasi-Twangfest featured acts like the Turnpike Troubadours, the John D. Hale Band, Will Hoge, William Elliott Whitmore and, on this night, Ben Nichols of Lucero and headliners the Bottle Rockets. You can't kill roots rock with a deep-fried, heart-attack sandwich and you can't build an altar for alt-country Valhalla on empty Stag half-quarts, but you can try.

John Henry & the Engine - ROY KASTEN
  • Roy Kasten
  • John Henry & the Engine

St. Louis rockers John Henry & the Engine had the kind of crowd they deserve - a good 100 plus, pushed in around the stage, with more than a few bar-rock nymphs singing along - and played the kind of set for which they're known: nothing held back, certainly not by the pummeling rhythm section, and not by Henry, who pulled out all the desperate-young-man histrionics. A new song, perhaps titled "Broken City," had some of Henry's tidiest hooks and "Sad Face of Yours" raced along to a "really, really simple beat" and had the crowd clapping in time - at least until the histrionics returned with Henry mic-stand-rubbing and coddling his guitar like a prodigal pet. He's got the right band and the right songs to follow in the footsteps of songwriterly rockers like Will Hoge, but - let's just put our cards on the table - one still has to get past the voice, which has grown wheezier with his hard-working years on stage.

I suppose I should save this for the "Personal Bias" section of the Critic's Notebook (see end of the review), but Lucero and its front man Ben Nichols have long struck me, a fully-credentialed twang-rock lifer, as problematic, bordering on plaguey. There's a very fine line between preaching the godless gospel of Southern-proletariat life and the clichés of bars, guns and six-string guitars. Sometimes Nichols and his band manage to make that iconography transcendent - see this year's Women & Work, Lucero's most musically-satisfying album - but sometimes they don't, and one is left with prosaic, life-is-shit-so-let's-get-drunk-and-smoke-cigarettes nihilism.

Ben Nichols of Lucero - ROY KASTEN
  • Roy Kasten
  • Ben Nichols of Lucero

Stripped of his band, Nichols' solo set veered wildly between these outcomes. "Sound all right out there?" he asked. "Yeah? Well I can do something about that." As if to prove the point he promptly flubbed "Chambers," the first of four or five such false starts. No one expects a seamless set from Nichols, and he seemed genuinely happy to be testing the strength of his songs against a burly bunch of dudes who bellowed and finger-pointed to every other chorus. The title track to "Women & Work" had a sweet rockabilly rhythm, almost swinging, and mid-set high point "Toadvine," another selection from the solo EP The Last Pale Light in the West, offered a glimmer of redemptive grace in the lines "I don't see nothing but the light." I considered lightening the mood by crushing some PBR cans on my head, but no one would take the bait and fight me. The crowd was fully into singing along to excellent set-ender "Nights Like These."

Have the Bottle Rockets played a St. Louis date since March 2011, when the band opened for James McMurtry at the Pageant? (If so, I welcome the correction.) The Off Broadway space wasn't at the capacity this gig deserved, and at 10:30 p.m. the quartet - Brian Henneman, John Horton, Keith Voegele and Mark Ortmann - went full-faders-up into "Big Lotsa Love," which could have been a lost Tom Petty song - and not just because Henneman was sporting a cherry Rickenbacker guitar -- but was in fact a new, unreleased, original tune. From there the Brox just burned like a climate-change prairie fire, small amps crackling like tinder through "Every Kind of Everything" and "Get on the Bus," the latter played, faster and faster and still faster yet at Henneman's delighted urging.

John Horton of the Bottle Rockets - ROY KASTEN
  • Roy Kasten
  • John Horton of the Bottle Rockets

Here's the thing about the Bottle Rockets: If you haven't seen the band in its twenty years on this planet you probably also haven't ascended the Arch, barbecued in Forest Park, banged a jukebox in South City or caught Chuck Berry in a little club on Delmar Boulevard. The band is that kind of essential, not just to St. Louis, but to the loud and thrilling and faith-restoring patrimony of rock & roll - here, there and everywhere. When Horton and Henneman's guitars lock in and mirror each other on the hooks to "Indianapolis," "Welfare Music" and "Shame On Me," and then smash that reflection on a furious and still-relevant "Wave That Flag"; when Voegele takes a surprising harmonica solo on "Lucky Break"; and when Ortmann focuses the band on every song, especially the main set-closing rave-up "The Long Way" and the final encore of Doug Sahm's "Mendocino, this band doesn't just prove how much can be done in a 90-minute set (24 numbers, with barely a pause to exhale).

It proves that rock & roll survivors always have so much to live up to - and the Bottle Rockets, somehow, always do just that.

Mark Ortmann of the Bottle Rockets - ROY KASTEN
  • Roy Kasten
  • Mark Ortmann of the Bottle Rockets

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: Discerning readers will note no mention of openers Rough Shop in this review. A late dinner at the over-rated Sidney Street Café meant I'd miss the local band's set, but I don't write about my close friends anyway.

Observed: Tom Parr, the Bottle Rockets' original second guitarist -- dismissed from the band in 2002 after an infamous fight in the SXSW streets of Austin -- showed up and shared some laughs with his former bandmates out on the club's back lot. He looked happy, and it was nice to see the reconciliation in person.

Overheard: Henneman on stage after a smashing "1000 Dollar Car": "This is like playing with the E Street Band but without those fifteen extra people!" He had a point.

Ben Nichols Setlist:

When You Decided to Leave
Last Night in Town
Chambers
Into Your Eyes
Women & Work
Old Sad Songs
Toadvine
Bruised Ribs (Glossary cover)
Slow Dancing
Tobin
My Best Girl
Hold Me Close
Bikeriders
It May Be Too Late
I'll Just Fall
Hello Sadness
Nights Like These

Bottle Rockets Setlist:

Big Lotsa Love
Every Kind of Everything
Get on the Bus
Way It Used to Be
Happy Anniversary
Lucky Break
Bad Company
Kerosene
Shame on Me
Hard Times
24 Hours a Day
Queen of the World
Blue Sky
Wave That Flag
I'll Be Coming Around
1000 Dollar Car
Nancy Sinatra
Indianapolis
Love Like a Truck
Welfare Music
The Long Way

Encore:
Pot of Gold
Radar Gun
Mendocino




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