Walking into the venue in front of the artist you're about to see can pose an interesting conundrum. Strike up a conversation or play it cool? Feeling bold, I advised Marshall Crenshaw how excited I was to see his show and he seemed a little nervous. He need not have worried. Three songs into the Bottle Rockets set Brian Henneman quipped, "This looks like the rock show to be at tonight!" Even with the first Chuck Berry performance after his recent "fall" going on at the same time across town, he was right. (Keep up with Chuck's night here.)
With the oncoming doom and gloom forecast of snow (St. Louis received anywhere from 5-14 inches in the metro area last night) which typically sends the average St. Louisian to the store for bread and milk and home to their bunker, the weather did not deter the crowd from packing Off Broadway to see this show. Hometown heroes, The Bottle Rockets, opening for and then backing the great Marshall Crenshaw; this was a rare treat not many wanted to miss.
Hitting the stage not too long after 8 p.m., Henneman poked fun at his band who haphazardly took the stage by saying "nobody takes the stage like the Bottle Rockets." The audience paid this no mind as the room brimmed with excitement about the show about to come. Henneman stayed away from a steady stream of banter from the stage as he and rest of the Bottle Rockets played a 15 song set that touched on material from nearly every album while still playing a good mix of old favorites and more recent songs.
Starting with "Shame On Me", the band bookended two songs from 2008's Lean Forward, with four classic numbers from their first three albums in between. Moving back towards newer material in the middle of the set, the band played another five song group of their classic material highlighted by a thundering "Radar Gun" and finally ending on a high note from the latest incarnation of the band with "The Long Way."
At one point Henneman pointed out two people significant to him becoming he performer he is, his wife Janet, and his guitar mentor. Of his mentor, "I wouldn't be playing this show tonight if it weren't for him." Yet, Henneman also noted that if it weren't for Crenshaw they would not have learned new chords and phrasing not showcased in the Bottle Rockets catalog.
From the stage Henneman gave proper credit to sound man Ryan Adams (not the same one from Whiskeytown and Ryan Adams & The Cardinals) for his work with the band the last couple of days at the venue. The hard work paid off as the sound at the show was incredible! Standing dead center and three-quarters of the way back from the stage, the vocals and stage banter were crystal clear and the balance between the instruments was spot on. Mark Ortmann's drumming was powerful, but not overpowering. Johnny Horton's guitar work on his Les Paul seemed etherial and otherworldly at times, while bassist Keith Voegele's harmonies were showcased for all to hear even above the booming bottom end emanating from his bass guitar.
The Bottle Rockets set list
Shame On Me
Every Kinda Everything
I Wanna Come Home
24 Hours A Day
Get Down, River
Alone In Bad Company
The Way It Used To Be
Give Me Room
I'll Be Coming Around
$1000 Dollar Car
The Long Way
After about a 20 minute break, Brian Henneman conceded his frontman status and the mic stand to Marshall Crenshaw and moved towards right center spending the rest of the evening as a guitarist. With Crenshaw at the helm he led the Bottle Rockets into new territory crafting his mix of rock, pop, and soul into their country rock sound. Sporting his typical dapper look of fedora and sport coat, the 57-year-old Detroit native strapped on his signature Stratocaster plugged into a small Vox amplifier and led the band through a 17 song career spanning set.
Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets got their feet wet with two tracks from Crenshaw's 1982 self-titled Warner Bros. release. Beginning with a slower than normal version of "There She Goes Again" and moving to the underrated pop gem "Cynical Girl," the band seemed tentative with Crenshaw even singing the middle guitar solo of the latter. Mixing beautifully with bassist Voegele's harmony vocals, Crenshaw's strong voice more than made up for any trepidation the band possibly had during the first few songs and things kept moving smoothly.
Energized by the crowd reaction to this unlikely pairing, Crenshaw had the crowd singing and bopping along to his tunes by the time the set reached "Mary Anne." Even Henneman relaxed and added his harmony vocals to the three-part mix. Clearly enjoying himself on stage, Crenshaw took the band leader role seriously and gave nods to Horton and Henneman for guitar solos never shying away from an opportunity to shine in his own right on his instrument.
Re-channelling the energy back to the crowd, Crenshaw announced the next song as "Valerie" the Richard Thompson song he covered on his 1989 album Good Evening. After the song was over the crowd erupted with their largest showing of support up to that point of the evening clearly supporting the song choice and the performance.
Crenshaw gave the crowd a glimpse into his roots by playing Buddy Holly's "Crying, Waiting Hoping" while at the same time reprising his role as Holly in the 1987 film LaBamba. The trio of guitarists transformed this song from simple 1950's rock with their stellar guitar picking wizardry.
Reaching back to the beginning of his career, Crenshaw finished the set playing the songs that made his early career shine. Starting with "Whenever You're On My Mind" from his 1983 album Field Day the band and Crenshaw started building to a crescendo by becoming a cohesive unit. Next, Crenshaw reached back to, as he put it, "Day 1" for a take on his first single from Alan Betrock's Shake Records, "Something's Gonna Happen. Quickly melding into his biggest charting hit "Someday, Someway." The set ended on the perfect track from Crenshaw's catalog to play with the Bottle Rockets, and the band hit another gear as they ended with "Better Back Off."
The encore brought one surprise followed by yet another! Crenshaw gave credit to his backing band and paid homage as he tore into the opening riff of "Kit Kat Clock" from the Bottle Rockets 24 Hours A Day album. The Bottle Rockets seemed more relaxed than at any point in the set, but Henneman had to be thinking it was strange seeing someone else sing one of his songs right in front of him. Crenshaw's reading gave the song a different voice than the original yet not straying too far.
Next, Crenshaw gave the crowd a sneak preview of the following night's show by announcing that Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos would be joining them the next night. The band then ripped into a great version of the Cheap Trick classic "Surrender" with Voegele stealing the encore and taking Cheap Trick's Robin Zander's place on lead vocals with Crenshaw and Henneman backing him up. In one song, the pairing made complete sense as both artists share a mutual appreciation for Cheap Trick and obviously each other.
Marshall Crenshaw set list
There She Goes Again (slow)
Live And Learn
Calling Out For Love (At Cryin Time)
What Do You Dream Of?
Valerie (Richard Thompson cover)
Right On Time
Crying, Waiting, Hoping (Buddy Holly cover)
Whenever You're On My Mind
Something's Gonna Happen
Better Back Off
Kit Kat Clock
Surrender (Cheap Trick cover)
This show was all about taking risks and moving forward as an artist and not resting on your laurels. As part of a recent CNN article on the Bottle Rockets and Crenshaw both parties agreed that if things went well a partnership could continue. After the show I asked Henneman how much the band worked on these songs for these shows to back Crenshaw. Henneman replied, "We rehearsed two times a week for the last four weeks and the last 2 days here [at Off Broadway]." When advised that the band's performance sounded great, Henneman shrugged it off stating, "it will get better." Indicative of his work ethic, Henneman was already hard at work thinking about the next show and how he and the band can improve.