It was a glorious week at Santa Barbara's SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, with three notable indie rock veterans — the Meat Puppets, Quasi and Bill Callahan — performing on different nights, all in support of new records.
First up were the Meat Puppets, returning to town Nov. 8, nearly five years after their last visit.
The Meat Puppets are revered as part of the first wave of indie rock in the 1980s, with their early albums released on the legendary independent label SST. Along the way they entered Kurt Cobain's orbit, who immortalized three Meat Puppets songs by covering them at Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York performance, with support from brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood. All three of these songs — "Plateau," "Oh, Me" and "Lake of Fire" — were on the program at SOhO.
This visit to town added Curt's son Elmo on rhythm guitar, and Curt played electric rather than acoustic guitar, giving the music serious bite. Rounding out the lineup were bassist Cris and drummer Shandon Sahm, son of the late Tex-Mex icon Doug Sahm. It should be noted that one of the many cover songs performed by the band was "(Hey Baby) Que Paso" by the Texas Tornados, a band that the elder Sahm was part of.
The Meat Puppets' new album, Rat Farm, was nicely represented by "Sometimes Blue" and "Waiting," songs that lean toward the country part of the Meat Puppets' musical spectrum. Other styles on the menu were country-infused punk rock on songs like "Lost," space rock as for the stretched-out jam during "Up on the Sun" and the hypercaffeinated alt rock of "Sam" that must be heard to be believed.
In fact, this stylistic diversity gives the Meat Puppets much of their charm. At the concert, you didn't really know what was coming next, but you always knew that it was gonna be good.
Meat Puppets Setlist
The Monkey and the Snake
Up on the Sun
Wasted Days and Wasted Nights (Freddy Fender cover)
(Hey Baby) Que Paso (Texas Tornados cover)
I'm a Mindless Idiot
Sloop John B (Beach Boys cover)
Open Wide, Forbidden Places album
Cathy's Clown (Everly Brothers cover)
Lake of Fire
On Thursday, Nov. 14, Portland indie rockers Quasi made their Santa Barbara debut, and the smallish crowd was finally able to hear the raw power of their live performance.
Now in their 20th year, Quasi is back to their roots as a two-piece, with Sam Coomes on vocals, distorted keyboards and guitar, and Janet Weiss on drums and backing vocals. It is kind of obligatory to mention that Coomes and Weiss used to be married, and it is our good fortune that their musical partnership and extraordinary chemistry have endured beyond their matrimony.
The show heavily (in at least two senses of the word) featured their adventurous new double album, Mole City, kicking off with "The Goat" and "Fat Fanny Land." An early highlight came when Coomes switched from keyboards to super-distorted guitar for Mole City's hooky "You Can Stay But You Gotta Go."
Given my personal fondness for Quasi's 2001 album, Sword of God, it was a treat that they closed the main set with that album's gorgeous "It's Raining."
But arguably the best treat of all was the cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" during the encore. Ozzy Osbourne-esque war cry vocals? Check, thanks to Coomes. Tony Iommi-esque power chords and trills? Check, thanks to Coomes on keyboard(!). Bill Ward-esque thunderous drumming? Check, thanks to Weiss. Did it matter that they got out of sync and had to stop part way through? Not at all. A "one, two, three, four" and they were back to the battle.
Fat Fanny Land
I Never Want to See You Again
See You on Mars
It's Hard to Turn Me On
An Ice Cube in the Sun
You Can Stay But You Gotta Go
Never Coming Back Again
Seven Years Gone
You F***ed Yourself
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding (Elvis Costello cover)
War Pigs (Black Sabbath cover)
The following night, Callahan paid a return visit to SOhO, 2½ years after he first played in town. Callahan has been releasing his music just a hair longer than Quasi, first as a lo-fi pioneer under the alias Smog, and more recently under his own name.
The show kicked off with a cover of the Velvet Underground classic "White Light/White Heat" in tribute to Lou Reed, who passed away just a few short weeks before, here played with subdued fury. The rest of the songs were almost entirely drawn from Callahan's two most recent albums, 2013's Dream River and 2011's Apocalypse, plus the wonderful "Too Many Birds" from 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle and a cover of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love."
There is a certain magic to Callahan's music, with his distinctive baritone voice and spot-on lyrics like "the only words I said today are 'beer' and 'thank you'" from "The Sing."
A special note also must be made of the amazing guitar contributions from Matt Kinsey, who manages a striking balance between control and abandon.
As for Callahan's previous trip to town, the show's highlight was the song "America!" which has it all — a groovy rhythm, a bit of guitar freak-out from Kinsey and lyrics that slice through your expectations. For example, after Callahan lists off notable country musicians who served in the armed forces, he notes that "I never served my country." And after listing off "Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native Americon," he declares, "Everyone's allowed a past they don't care to mention."
Fortunately for us, there are veteran indie rockers like the Meat Puppets, Quasi and Callahan that are willing to revisit their past, and continue to produce new music that soars to remarkable heights.
Bill Callahan Setlist
White Light/White Heat (Velvet Underground cover)
One Fine Morning
Too Many Birds
Please Send Me Someone to Love (Percy Mayfield cover)
Ride My Arrow
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.