Meat Puppets delivers raw sounds and tasty chops

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Matthew Rodgers/Courtesy

Legendary cowpunk outfit The Meat Puppets brought their incendiary show to the Independent in San Francisco on Friday, June 17th. Marrying country, folk, punk and alt-rock to Les Paul cock rock, the Meat Puppets concocted an eclectic and expansive sound. Playing in a beautiful theater, the subdued lighting and smokey ambiance of the Independent was the perfect contrast to the Puppets’ explosive performance. The small-capacity venue kept the Puppets’ energy packed in, soaked up by an exciting and loving audience.

Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, the Meat Puppets are made up of brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood as well as drummer Shandon Shane. Curt Kirkwood was in fine form on the guitar, opening the show with a blistering instrumental that that would set the precedent for the night’s show. Mixing moving finger picking with hell-on-the-wing guitar solos, Curt was frequently the focus of show, meandering around the stage while shredding and mugging for the cameras. Cris played a more subtle but equally crucial role, filling out the sound with melodic bass lines laid thick on top of Shandon Sham’s drum fills. The Meat Puppets recently released their thirteenth album, Lollipop, which presents soft, laid-back Costello-esque folk, far more subdued than what the band is notorious for, but still featuring blistering guitar solos and sweet-and-sour harmonies.  Instead of exuding the solidly-built, well-constructed folk of Lollipop, the Puppets dove head-long into psychedelic jams and ran through everything from their hit single “Backwater” to the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B”, proving the band could render old-school pop sensibilities as well as bang out noisy squall.

After success as a punk band in the late ’80s , they gained mainstream exposure when they were featured on Nirvana’s legendary MTV Unplugged in New York performance. Known at the time for being a rough-and-ready cowpunk outfit, the Meat Puppets were sought out by Kurt Cobain play on what would become three of the most famed songs from the performance. Yet playing with somebody as famous as Kurt Cobain ensured that these were the most anticipated and applauded songs of the Puppet’s set at the Independent. These included “Oh Me”, “Plateau”, and “Lake of Fire”, all three of which were featured, as well as the mid-’90s hit single “Backwater”.  While the Meat Puppets delivered a solid setlist drawing from their entire career, it was definitely the songs that Cobain so loved, as well as their one commercial hit, “Backwater”, that drew the most focused attention from the audience. Indeed, between the long, jam band/psychedelic improvs, it became hard to distinguish the unique characteristics of each number. Finishing the main set with “Lake of Fire”, which they extended into an epic jam that made for a rousing finished, they returned for the encore, only to finished with a cover of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

Much of the Meat Puppet’s appeal is tide up in their versatility, and throughout the night Curt Kirkwood’s voice swung from oil-choked growl to angelic waver, to handle everything from the desolate desert landscapes of his own material to the California sunshine of the Beach Boys. Kirkwood’s guitar playing was equally as versatile, going from nimble finger picking to screaming, psychedelic solos.  Curt Kirkwood and drummer aid down a solid rhythm section, not only provided punchy and melodic bass lines but helping his brother to create the warbling vocal harmonies the Puppets are so beloved for.

Concerning their new album, complaints have been made that Lollipop is too well constructed, too in-tune, and too flat for a band that built themselves on punked-out alt-country music. The Puppets are harder, heavier, and looser than on record, and definitely showed no signs of the flat-footedness that dogs Lollipop. But not matter how far out or noisy they take their jammy explorations, its that essential tunefulness that shone through in the cacophony of their live experience. While the records may be hit and miss, but the Meat Puppets lives are a no-miss experience.