Smile Politely

Rockets redux and family bonding

The Bottle Rockets at the Highdive

May 2, 2009

My dad and I are, let’s say, at different ends of most spectrums. We clash on political beliefs. He doesn’t like cats. I don’t golf or watch sports. But music’s our connection. When I visit him, we jam on our guitars. And our greatest hit is a cover of the Bottle Rockets’ “Thousand Dollar Car.” He’s on guitar and vocals, I’m on bass.

Dad and I go see the Bottle Rockets whenever they come around. And we have a Champaign tradition. Before a Highdive show, we go next door to Jupiter’s for pizza. Chances are, we’ll see a Bottle Rocket or two as we down draft cider. We always gossip about what we know about the band. Does Keith really tend bar in Springfield? Did Brian play with Uncle Tupelo?

Then we create a list of rules for going to a show. Never wear the t-shirt of the band you’re going to see. Tonight, Dad’s wearing a Drive-By Truckers shirt; I’m wearing a CBGB shirt. Whew. We’re safe. We make an exception for the time Dad wore a Diesel Island shirt to Bottle Rockets concert. Technically, Dad says, that doesn’t count, because it’s not really the Bottle Rockets — it’s a band made up of members of the Bottle Rockets, and not everybody knows about Diesel Island.

That’s our routine, but this Saturday is a special show. It’s actually being filmed for a DVD, so the place is packed early. Dad and I look for a table. No luck. Instead, we snake our way to the front and stake our positions. We won’t move, not even to get a beer. In such close quarters, we talk to fellow fans before the show starts. We meet the guy who won last year’s Bottle Rockets anniversary contest: the custom-built Creston Golden Rocket guitar. Dad and I look at him, wide-eyed, then at each other with a mixture of incredulity and envy. We also talk to fans who drove from Chicago, Milwaukee — even Detroit.

Then the Bottle Rockets hit the stage. “Welcome to our movie!” Brian Henneman hollers. The crowd whips itself into a frenzy as the band launch into a crunchy “Better Than Broken” from 2006’s Zoysia.

They play a whoppin’ 34 songs, including eight from the band’s upcoming album, Lean Forward. The rest are a respectable sampling from the past 16 years: “Lucky Break,” “Baggage Claim” (from Blue Sky, 2003); crowd sing-alongs “Love Like a Truck” (from Brand New Year, 1999), “Indianapolis” (from 24 Hours a Day, 1997), “Radar Gun,” “Welfare Music,” “Thousand Dollar Car” (from The Brooklyn Side, 1995); and early cuts “Kerosene” and “Every Kinda Everything” (from Bottle Rockets, 1993). They pull out a couple of gems: “Slo Toms,” which reminds me of the Who, and the hilarious “Sunday Sports.” And I’m stoked to hear the sway-with-your-lighter “Things You Didn’t Know” — my very own personal “Freebird.”

But there are more standouts: a perfect “At the Crossroads,” from their Doug Sahm tribute, Songs of Sahm, and a blistering “Zoysia,” the title track to the band’s 2006 release. Mark Ortmann drums so hard it pummels my internal organs.

As the show goes on, Dad and I make new rules. Like, if you’re gonna dance, face the band, don’t face the audience. It’s like elevator etiquette. Oh, and if you have to, um, break wind, please, for the love of all that is holy, try to hold it. As we gasp for oxygen, Dad and I take bets on the culprit.

The Bottle Rockets are tight tonight, but they put on a solid show every time I see them. Yeah, I tend to be biased because I’m a fan. Their sound is better at some venues than others, but overall, the Bottle Rockets can be relied upon for a stellar show. (The only complaint I have is the lack of women’s sizes at the merch table, specifically the “What the hell is alt country?” shirt, which I decide then and there I must have. I’ll order it online.)

The band play two encores. By the second, I’m extremely hot. And when I get hot, I yawn. Not cool at a Bottle Rockets show. A sweaty, burly Elgin superfan calls me out: “Dere’s no yawning!” Some fans turn to look at me with disdain as I cringe.

But I know Dad has my back.

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