Some concerts are just plain fun. The Meat Puppets coming back to Salt Lake was one of the most eagerly awaited local concerts recently, especially among the old-school punk scene.
Dave Matthews Band—I mean local band Cory Mon opened. I could list the things that annoyed me about them and it would be over a dozen, starting with the singer’s voice that was right in that DM tone, to the jam band groove. One band member solely provided backup vocals and played tambourine, and was dismissed toward the end of their set, as though he was being let go. The singer’s floppy hat, singing a love song after admitting that, though he’d had bad luck, finally found a girl who would put up with him (just kidding, that’s not exactly how he put it)—dude, don’t you know the best love songs are the ones about love gone wrong? The portly bass player wearing a wife beater on stage, his hipster handlebar moustache. His bright red Fender bass—what’s not to love about that? I want. The fragrance of pot smoke wafting through the air—oh yeah, that’s not a problem. They are proficient, and have a CD release that’s probably worth picking up—this kind of music just isn’t my thing, I admit. I was surprised that such a hippie jam band was picked to open for the Meat Puppets.
Meat Puppets started with two instrumentals, then charged into “Plateau,” which included a country-style guitar solo from Curt Kirkwood. After over 30 years since their origin, several breakups and reunions, Kirkwood’s bassist brother Cris’ recovery from heroin addiction and incarceration for assault of a postal worker 10 years ago, the band is as energetic and vital as ever.
It occurred to me during their early numbers that country punk is the closest thing to hippie punk, if there is such a thing. Discussing them before the show, a friend compared them to Dinosaur Jr., but I thought of them more in terms of Butthole Surfers, with the sarcasm in their lyrics and the psychedelic guitar effects, more chaotic than Dinosaur Jr.’s. Certainly on the country-influenced numbers, they demonstrated a likeness with Dinosaur Jr. in the influence of Neil Young on their songwriting.
The remainder of the evening progressed, or degenerated (haha), into the more Butthole Surfers’ end of the psychedelic swimming pool/cesspool. At the same time, their music, song after song, proved itself as just solid rock n’ roll that doesn’t fit easily into a pigeonhole of country, psychedelic or punk—it’s a little of all of those things. The latest iteration of the Meat Puppets musical world came to the fore on “Down,” from their new album Rat Farm. Unlike the Butthole Surfers, their compositions haven’t become watered-down versions of the original aesthetic, but are still inventive and varied.
There were a few beautiful surprises in their set, including some real classic rock chestnuts like Freddie Fender’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” a Texas-style country ballad that was a ‘70s radio hit, and the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B,” which, after the reverb and distortion-drenched guitar wailings of Curt and his son Elmo on second guitar, was absolutely crystalline in its guitar arpeggios and vocal harmonies—a moment of reverence for musical history from a band known for its irreverence.
A lot of their songs have that country two-step, like “Lost On the Freeway,” from the Meat Puppets II, which also provided some of their biggest ‘hits’ when they were rediscovered during the grunge era and Nirvana covered “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau”’ To me, that album feels like being scorched on a 100-degree day by the Arizona sun. “Backwater” showed their command of a straight-ahead rocker. The Meat Puppets were incorporated into the grunge movement, but unlike some grunge music of the era, their music doesn’t sound dated now. Like great rock n’ roll bands—I never considered them as up there with the canon of “great” rock n’ roll bands, but their performance was so infectious, stylistically varied, mind-bendingly virtuous in its own way, and overwhelmingly celebratory that it made me reconsider. As part of their encore, they dug even further back in rock n’ roll history to cover the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown.” As with most everything else they played, it degenerated into a psychedelic guitar sludgefest by the end, a musical acid trip, filtered through the kaleidoscopic lens of the Meat Puppets music.
The dancing and even slight moshing up front that was going by the end of the show caused some consternation on the part of the dapper house security, who looked like an extra from Mad Men. That’s the kind of party atmosphere that the band generated—it was just an incredibly fun time, almost too much fun for Salt Lake City on a Tuesday night.