Rant ‘N’ Roll: American Treasures

Marshall Crenshaw played John Lennon in Broadway’s Beatlemania. He played Buddy Holly in the La Bamba movie. His 1982 eponymous debut is still one of the Top 10 greatest rock ‘n’ roll debut albums in history, a primal bass/drums/guitar statement that stayed on the charts for six months and sold just under a half million copies. It spawned a Top 40 pop hit, “Someday Someway.” Since then, he’s released nine rock-solid albums filled with his jagged edges, memorable melodies, stinging guitar and complex chord changes. He’s been singing his own songs now for 32 years and he’s since become an under-the-radar rock ‘n’ roll hero with a fanatical cult following who just adores his oxymoronic blend of Beatlesque power pop Americana. I’m in the cult. Did I mention he once played guitar with fellow Detroit rockers MC5? Actor, author, composer for film, historian, tech guru, radio host, his “current” album, Jaggedland (2009), is a keeper. He’s never stopped touring, and his warm, friendly, expressive voice sounds as good now, at 60, as it ever did.

The Bottle Rockets have a similar career trajectory. They burst out of Missouri in 1992 with two critically-acclaimed indie rock albums that the media quickly dubbed alt country. It got them their major label nightmare with Atlantic who didn’t know what to do with them. But this band is smart. Despite ever-changing fortunes, tastes and band members, guitarist/vocalist Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann have kept on keeping on. 11 albums later, they’ve solidified their sound into satisfying country-tinged grit.

On this current tour, they’re pulling double-duty, playing a full set of their own, and then serving as the back-up band for Crenshaw.

Crenshaw’s songs are little psycho-dramas. He wants a “Cynical Girl,” he tells her “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time” before warning her she “Better Back Off” and philosophically opining “There She Goes Again (With Another Guy).” He can be wistful (“Driving And Dreaming”) and inquisitive (“What Do You Dream Of”). He gives Buddy Holly’s “Crying Waiting Hoping” that modern extra oomph. He may have a broken heart but the songs are bouncy, jangly and hit you right in your feel-good spot. My +1 never even heard of him but these songs stuck to him like a comfortable sweater, instantly memorable.

The Bottle Rockets added some balls, some verve, and a bit of a harder edge than Crenshaw’s recorded versions of his own songs. In other words, this was a perfect night of melodic rock ‘n’ roll and you can tell Marshall felt good as his guitar solos went off into the stratosphere, elongated flights of fancy that elevated the structure of the songs themselves into abstract and almost inchoate jam joy. At one point, you could see the Bottle Rockets look at each other as if to say, “Marshall’s on fire tonight!”

I know plenty of rock fans who bemoan the state of their favorite art. Likewise, I know plenty of country fans who don’t even listen to the garbage that’s being marketed as “country” these days. I’m here to tell you it’s out there, great stuff in both genres, you just have to look a little harder for it. And don’t expect radio to help.

The Sellersville Theater, right off 309 which is right off 78, a straight shot from North Jersey, has the kind of booking policy that’s right up my alley. It’s attached to a fine restaurant. The acoustics are superb. The lineup for March is amazing. This is only a partial list: 1—Los Lobos, 2—Buckwheat Zydeco, 3—Robyn Hitchcock, 4—Claddagh, 5—Lee Ritenour, 7—Roomful Of Blues, 16—Oak Ridge Boys, 21—Suzy Bogguss, 26—Todd Rundgren, 27—Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac, 28—John Gorka, 31—Hugh Masekela.