Late nights. Road trips. Lineup changes. Artistic differences. How does a band keep it together for 20 years?
"It's what I imagine being married is like," laughs Bottle Rockets drummer Mark Ortmann.
His alt-country band formed two decades ago through high school friends and, in doing so, put its Festus, Missouri hometown on the map for many music fans. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Brian Henneman initially joined forces with Ortmann to create the Blue Moons, a group with rather inauspicious beginnings.
"Our first show together was in a venue called Caveland; it was a roller skating rink cemented into a cave in the side of a hill," he says. "The walls sweat and sand fell on the rink."
Later, they went on to form Chicken Truck and then, the Bottle Rockets. Today, with their signature two-guitar rock sound, Bottle Rockets are often (rightly) praised as a great everyman bar band, but it's their ability to be great storytellers — delivering insightful cultural critiques with a certain heartland sensibility and, often, a sense of humor — that has consistently earned them critical kudos and diehard fans from around the world.
"Some of the most fun I have had with the band was a tour through Spain a few years ago," Ortmann says. "They really came out for the music, not because it was an event."
Turns out the Bottle Rockets, who are always received warmly in cities like Chicago, New York and St. Louis, also have diehard fans in foreign places that can sing their entire Americana catalogue—from "Radar Gun" to "Indianapolis" to "Nancy Sinatra." "You never know where this stuff is going to land," says Ortmann. "You make your record and out it goes. There's no telling how far it will reach."
But the band's widespread audience and longevity weren't always certain. Back in 1993 when the band's self-titled first release came out on East Side Digital, the Bottle Rockets seemed poised for mainstream Top-40 success. Connected to other roots rock forefathers (Henneman played on early albums for Uncle Tupelo and Wilco), they were picked up by Atlantic Records for their next two efforts, The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours a Day, something that Ortmann says was seen as critical at the time.
"Back then, that was the goal: get a record deal," he says. "That was your way into the business. Moving up to a major label represented the big leagues."
But all too soon label changes, lineup changes and other issues hindered forward progress. At least temporarily. "All of us, somewhere along the way, have quit. But the band continues on, so we keep going." The current lineup—Henneman, Ortmann, guitarist John Horton and bassist Keith Voegele —has been in place since 2005 and is firing on all cylinders. "It's all pretty natural for us now," says Ortmann. "We've taken away the expectations and pressures. We're doing it for the love of it and we'll keep going because that's what we do."
Lately they've been doing what they love on the road in the company of one Marshall Crenshaw (a veteran singer-songwriter probably best known for his Top 40 hit "Someday, Someway"), playing their own music and adding a "certain element" to the singer/songwriter's live show as his backing band. "It's a blast," says Ortmann about playing with the rock 'n' roller who'd been around the block before the Bottle Rockets even started. "His music is really challenging and fun to play and our musical attitudes are the same.
The band has also been performing at a number of house concerts across the country. Despite the fact the Bottle Rockets have been lauded for their hard-driving sound, Ortmann sees these shows and their recent Not So Loud acoustic album as a natural transition.
"We wrote much of our catalogue on acoustic guitar originally and then transferred it to an electric full band," he says. "We're really continuing to do our own thing, just not always fully plugged in."
The intimate venues allow fans to shout out requests throughout the evening. With 11 albums under their musical belt, there are certainly a lot of songs on the potential request list. Of course, some treasured tunes really seem to resonate over the years and over geography—the tragedy of a trailer fire chronicled in "Kerosene," the routine of life toyed with in "Gotta Get Up" and of course, the unreliability of a cheap ride lamented in "1,000 Dollar Car," a perennial crowd-pleaser and a song that Ortmann still loves to play. "Brian wrote something that is so engaging and entertaining that I don't really ever get tired of it." (One of Ortmann's personal favorites, however, is "I Wanna Come Home.")
Ortmann admits that with 60 people yelling songs, sometimes there's a stumper. "Every now and then you get a super fan who requests something really obscure they found on a bootleg copy. You wonder how they even heard about them sometimes." The beauty of that, says Ortmann, is that it's precisely those types of songs—beloved and long forgotten—that will be part of two Bloodshot Records' reissues of the Bottle Rockets' seminal first two albums later this year. The reissues will feature long unavailable material and bonus tracks. "We're even including some of Brian's acoustic demos, Chicken Truck songs, outtakes and live stuff. It's going to be special." A live performance DVD including a mini-retrospective documentary is also tentatively planned for release this fall.
But the Bottle Rockets aren't just looking back; they're working on songs and hoping for another album out in 2014 — one that just might earn them a few new fans. "Right now, our audience seems to be two generations—the ones who liked us right from the start and grew along with us and, now, their children who grew up hearing us."
Still, there's a familiarity with some currently popular acts that seems like it should translate to crossover. "Music does go through cycles and Americana, alt-country, roots-type music reinvents or repackages itself along the way," muses Ortmann. "Back in the '80s you had Rank and File and Rockpile, and in the '90s there was the roots rock scare going on, then everyone jumped on the whole 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou?' bluegrass roots thing and now there are bands like The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons."
The band might not be playing to the same size of audiences as those last two groups, but it's received its fair share of accolades. An article in The Atlantic recently highlighted its smart songwriting and the group was also included on a blogger's recent list of "35 Most Important Roots Albums of the Last 25 Years." As for the current tour, the group is again reunited with Crenshaw and again playing the Beachland Ballroom, where it's performed many times in the past. Not that Ortmann has lost any enthusiasm for performing in Northeast Ohio.
"Cleveland has always been good to us," he says. "I like playing Cleveland. The Beachland is a terrific venue for original music and that place can really get hoppin'."
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