Photo by Robert Bell.
Once upon a time, two blue-blooded, musically gifted brothers from Arizona started a band. This was during the hardcore heyday of the early ‘80s, and though the winds were blowing strongly in the direction of harder-faster-louder, the siblings had an abiding love of such punk anathema as Neil Young and the Grateful Dead.
In short order, the Meat Puppets signed to the label SST and released a slew of albums — at least two of which are masterpieces — which combined the theretofore-disparate sounds of punk, country and psychedelia. They also earned the admiration of a certain scraggly, blonde-headed youngster who went on to start his own band of some considerable renown.
By the time they performed three of their songs alongside Kurt Cobain on MTV Unplugged in 1993, Curt and Cris Kirkwood had already attained revered elder status among informed indie listeners. But the success of Nirvana’s Unplugged performance set many younger ears to wondering just who those two other guys were.
The next year, the band had a genuine hit single on its hands. “Backwater,” a crunchy, catchy pop nugget, put a spotlight on the band that had never shone on them before.
But the trappings and temptations that often go along with that level of rock star status eventually overtook Cris Kirkwood. He spiraled into heroin addiction, which eventually took away not only his band (which broke up in 1996) and his teeth, but also, tragically, his wife, who overdosed in 1998. In an indirect way, it also took his freedom, as he served about 18 months in prison after a conviction over a 2003 altercation in which a postal security guard shot him in the back.
But after more than a decade in the wilderness, the Kirkwoods reconciled in 2007, and the now-clean Cris has rejoined his brother in the band they started nearly 30 years ago.
The Meat Puppets took to the stage at the Rev Room with the confidence and serenity of seasoned rock warriors. Though the brothers of 2009 are showing more than just a touch of grey, their chops have probably never been better. Drummer Shandon Sahm (son of legendary Texas country rocker Doug Sahm) propelled the tunes with an appropriately thudding precision.
The Wednesday night crowd was an odd mix of several younger folks in early ‘90s drag and a smattering of casual Friday guys wearing blazers, nice jeans and loafers. Only a bare handful of true, grizzled oldsters were to be found.
The band opened with “Oh, Me” from “Meat Puppets II.” Most of the crowd seemed to recognize the song. The Puppets played a few numbers from that classic album, including a low-key version of “Plateau,” a rowdy, raucous take on “Lake of Fire” and a bouncy rendition of “Lost.”
Most of the songs incorporated some focused jamming midway through. Curt Kirkwood often immersed himself in moments of quiet guitar reverie, held aloft by the adept rhythm section until he saw fit to bring things back to Earth with a huge swell of distortion. The brothers’ guitar interplay seemed instinctive and their harmonies natural as they drew from their extensive back catalog.
They didn’t shy away from their biggest hit, either. When they kicked off the intro to “Backwater,” several improbably young fans at the front of the stage cheered, bouncing up and down like it’s 1994. Thank God it’s not, and that the Meat Puppets came out on the other side, intact and not too much the worse for wear.