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Meat Puppets Are a Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll

A resurgent band delights fans with a brotherly musical chemistry

Curt Kirkwood, singer and indie-rock guitar hero, plays at the Meat Puppets' Thursday show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club.
Curt Kirkwood, singer and indie-rock guitar hero, plays at the Meat Puppets’ Thursday show at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club. (Allison Moehlis photo)

There have been several great rock ‘n’ roll bands in which brothers play together: Gregg and Duane Allman in The Allman Brothers Band, Ray and Dave Davies in The Kinks, Angus and Malcolm Young in AC/DC.

A less well-known but equally worthy addition to this list is Curt and Cris Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets, a band that has produced a unique and diverse blend of punk, country and psychedelia since forming in Phoenix in 1980 with drummer Derrick Bostrom. Although the Meat Puppets flirted with mainstream success in the mid-1990s, they have ultimately remained a cult band appreciated by a devoted following that included the late Kurt Cobain from Nirvana.

As sometimes happens (say, for example, Ray and Dave Davies), Curt (guitar, vocals) and Cris (guitar, background vocals) have not always been on the best of terms. In the case of the Kirkwood brothers, the main stress came from Cris’ long period of out-of-control drug abuse, which led to them not playing together or even seeing each other for many years. Fortunately for fans at the Meat Puppets concert at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Friday night, they are back playing together, now with Ted Marcus on drums, and are firing on all cylinders.

After respectable and politely received sets by Santa Barbara’s Cat OK and Portland’s Shaky Hands, the Meat Puppets kicked off with a smoking cover of “Buckaroo,” a 1965 instrumental country hit for Buck Owens. This set the tone for a raucous hour-plus of country-tinged indie rock.

The next song, the instrumental “I’m a Mindless Idiot,” was the first of many from the band’s 1984 classic album, Meat Puppets II. (Wow, can you believe that album is 25 years old? The younger audience members weren’t even born when this first came out!) Other songs from this album included the three songs (“Plateau”, “Oh, Me” and “Lake of Fire”) immortalized by their inclusion on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York performance, and the hillbillies-on-speed romp “Lost.”

Bassist Cris Kirkwood sings George Jones'
Bassist Cris Kirkwood sings George Jones’ “My Baby’s Gone” at the Meat Puppets’ SOhO show. (Allison Moehlis photo)

Their next album, the Grateful Dead-meets-The Talking Heads (in my opinion, at least), Up on the Sun, was represented by the title track with its signature repeated descending guitar riff. This song included an extended jam with Curt drawing percussive sounds out of his acoustic guitar by rapidly hitting the strings with his hands. Here, and many other times throughout the night, if you didn’t see it you wouldn’t have guessed that Curt was playing an acoustic guitar — the acoustic sound was often (and delightfully) rendered beyond recognition through distortion, delay, and wah-wah effects.

Other periods from the Meat Puppets’ diverse and extensive catalog were also visited, including several songs from their 1994 commercial breakthrough album, Too High To Die. They also played the title track from Curt’s 2005 solo album, Snow.

The show was at its “most country” when Cris sang spirited lead vocals on a cover of “My Baby’s Gone” by George Jones. The lyrics “my world has ended, my baby’s gone” gain poignancy when we remember that Cris’ wife died of a drug overdose in 1998. The show was at its “most rock ‘n’ roll” at the end of the main set, when “Lake of Fire” became a glorious, noisy jam full of effects-laden guitar heroics.

The band’s encore started with with the country-punk “Climbing,” then launched into the 350-words-per-minute (according to my estimate) how-do-they-do-that boogie “Sam”. The concert ended with the Meat Puppets’ commercial highpoint “Backwater.”

Curt and Cris’ musical chemistry is truly amazing, and it elevated the show to one of the best in the Santa Barbara area in recent memory. But right after the show, I noticed that they had cigarettes apart from each other. Hey, even brothers who have been reunited sometimes need their space.

Setlist:
1. Buckaroo
2. I’m a Mindless Idiot
3. Touchdown King
4. Snow
5. Up on the Sun
6. Lost
7. The Whistling Song
8. Oh, Me
9. Comin’ Down
10. My Baby’s Gone
11. Flaming Heart
12. Plateau
13. Severed Goddess Hand
14. Look at the Rain
15. Lake of Fire

Encore:
16. Climbing
17. Sam
18. Backwater

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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