Meat Puppets at the Turf Club, 11/12/11
There's something magical about seeing old SST bands. I doubt it's that the L.A.-based punk/hardcore/jazz label necessarily had a strong influence on the bands whose records they put out, but rather that founder Greg Ginn had his finger on some sort of underground pulse that tapped into a number of musicians whose sounds and aesthetics would resonate with kids nationwide.
The common thread is that this resonance would never quite turn into a roar, but rather maintain its steady hum over three decades. There was never a strong probability these underground bands would ever have the mass appeal and then opportunity to truly sell out, and I mean truly, not in the strict punk ethos sense of the word, but to never make it huge enough to necessitate a devastating change to their sound, and to then fade away into obscure irrelevance.
As such, the magic in seeing artists like Mike Watt, various incarnations of the Descendents, or the Meat Puppets is that, unlike many of their peers, the nature of their sound really has not progressed one bit. And that's a good thing. Brief forays into Top-40 radio notwithstanding (see Watt's 1994 Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Meat Puppets' Too High to Die from the same year), it seems these musicians share something in common: they never really attempted wholeheartedly to lend their sound a mass appeal, and thus haven't had to come back down from the identity crisis that inevitably follows, the "Who are we, and how did we get here?" So they're able to kick out their music, be it new or be it old, with the youthful energy, the imperfect panache, and the contented simplicity of the musicians they were when they were half their age, without the decades of knowledge on marketability they've since accrued.
Does it come from never quite "making it," and still playing venues only a wee bit larger than the basement shows they started playing when they were kids, as the Meat Puppets did to a packed but intimate audience at the Turf Club Saturday night? Probably. Does that never really "making it" probably mean we're dealing with a band that never really wished to? Most likely. And so with the Meat Puppets, with Mike Watt and with others, there's a down-to-earth quality that's stuck, and that endears them to new younger fans and older superfans alike still today.
Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood were in top form Saturday night, their performance propelled by honestly jaw-dropping energy from two fellas in their early 50s, one of whom is not too terribly far removed from a time when he was shot in the back, served a short stint in prison, and overcame a drug addiction. Following a brief tour from south to northeast to midwest, they were joined by drummer Shandon Sahm and a rhythm guitarist I reckon was Curt Kirkwood's son. While their performance was heavy on content from the well-known Meat Puppets II album, they gave fair shake to material spanning most of their dozen-plus albums, as well as a handful of inspired covers. A high point of the night was their cover of "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," with a presentation that while true to its original form had a punch that might wake Freddy Fender from his deathly slumbers. Overall, seeing the Meat Puppets was fun. Simply enjoyable. The place abounded with middle-aged men dancing with windmill arms that come only from pure joy (well that, and a little devil water).
Kicking off the night was the Gang Font, featuring a solid wall of improvisational yet pop-sensible sound from Dave King, Bryan Nichols and Greg Norton - Meat Puppets' former SST label-mate with his band Hüsker Dü - fronted by the technique-laden noodly guitar work of Erik Fratzke. And if you missed opener Black Box Revelation, not to worry; the Belgian rock band which seems to buzz of all things up-and-coming (did I see people asking them for autographs?!?) must have a friend in the folks at First Ave, as following Saturday night's show, they have a Monday night show in the Entry, another Monday night show the following week in the Entry, and then open for Beady Eye in the Mainroom in December. Phew! You will have your Black Box Revelation AND YOU WILL LIKE IT, MINNESOTA.
Critic's bias: I taught my little brother four songs when he was four: "Don't Let me Down" by the Beatles (he liked when I played it for him on the piano), "I Feel the Earth Move" by Carole King (he had the strangest affinity for that woman), and the Meat Puppets' "Plateau" and "Lake of Fire." My mom thought the latter two sounded a little morbid, and was none too pleased.
The crowd: I wished there were more women there. The impressive nerd dude count was already too much to handle, but then when you add in the kinda aggro/lookin'-like-they-wanna-punch-anyone-in-the-face contingent, it leaves a gal wanting for a little more estrogen in the air. Thank god for middle-aged, windmill-armed, high-fiving dudes, their pure joy redeeming the whole room.
Overheard in the crowd: "There's a lot of rock and roll happening. For a guy in pajamas." (Note to Freddy Votel: Curt Kirkwood must have borrowed a line from your style book - he was wearing South Park-patterned pajama pants over Converse sneakers.)
Random notebook dump: An acquaintance at the show turned to me and asked "Have they always sounded like this?" indicating that she was only familiar with 1994 hit "Backwater" but that a friend had told her she should come check them out, that she would like them. I don't remember precisely what her take was on them having heard a few songs, but I think over the din of the PA and of dudes shouting I heard the words "hippy shit." She was into it, but mentioned this friend, upon referring her, had described them as punk, or hardcore, and so she asked if they'd gone soft. I told her they'd always sounded this way - hippy psychedelic punk. "Right on!"
I'm a Mindless Idiot
The Monkey and the Snake
Wasted Days and Wasted Nights (Freddy Fender cover)
Que Paso (Hey Baby) (Texas Tornados cover)
Up on the Sun
Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
?? Instrumental (was it Seal Whales?)
Sloop John B (Beach Boys, er, Kingston Trio cover)
Lake of Fire
Where Does a Little Tear Come From (George Jones cover)
My Baby's Gone (Louvin Brothers, Jim & Jesse, et al.)