Cass McCombs, Meat Puppets mix genres in live show

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Cass McCombs and the Meat Puppets make an unexpected pairing. The two artists chose to tour together out of mutual admiration, but they share few of the typical similarities for such a setup. Where the Meat Puppets are famous for their energetic mix of grunge rock and country-western influences, McCombs gained a following for his mellow tracks and peculiar lyrics. Last Wednesday, the two artists performed at the Independent in San Francisco, and although the Meat Puppets started off the night with an energetic show, McCombs was off his game for much of the evening.

The Meat Puppets managed to transition from lighthearted bluegrass to melt-your-face-off guitar solos with apparent ease. Curt Kirkwood, the band’s lead singer, has a special kind of “rad dads” charisma that played well with the audience and conveyed genuine excitement. While the set list was a bit jumbled, it contained hidden gems, such as a hard rock cover of “Sloop John B,” in addition to the band’s more well known songs.

The band finished its set with “Lake of Fire,” which included some truly righteous guitar solos. While Kurt Cobain’s raw, pleading cover would solidify the song among the great grunge rock achievements of the 1990s, the band’s live rendition Wednesday — albeit less raw and pleading than Cobain’s — provided a fitting climax to an outstanding show.

When McCombs took the stage, he benefited from the momentum of the Meat Puppets’ energetic performance and began the set with an electric rendition of “Big Wheel,” which evolved into manic guitar riffs and rollicking vocals. As if in accordance with some illusory how-to guide for young rock stars, he spoke very little and maintained a meticulously cultivated aura of mystery throughout the night. Whether his kangol-style beret enhanced or detracted from this impression is open to debate.

Much of the performance, unfortunately, disappointed even die-hard McCombs fans. UC Berkeley student Michael Bigham, who described McCombs as being among his favorite musicians and had already seen him twice, confirmed that Wednesday’s concert was the worst of the three. This disappointment had nothing to do with the acoustics of the venue — in fact, the Independent is small and intimate, which significantly enhanced the experience.

No, the failure was in his set list, which featured multiple throwaway tracks as well as ill-advised re-imaginings of some of his best material. Where “Big Wheel” was a brilliant and energetic start, he transformed the gorgeous, suppliant ballad “City of Brotherly Love” into a strange reggae shuffle. While innovation is sometimes nice and refreshing, in this instance, it was painful for everyone involved.

At one point in the middle of a six-plus-minute jam session consisting primarily of elevator music, I watched two onlookers give up and begin huffing what appeared to be ether next to a nearby ATM. Not much had improved by the time they returned other than a gorgeous rendering of “County Line,” his last song of the night and one of his most popular. Sadly, this too was marred by the unremitting soft-rock jam session proceeding it. The dads definitely won this round.

Contact Grace Culhane at [email protected].