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September 19, 2007

Kirkwoods, Meat Puppets still put on a good show

“Let’s see . . . there was our late ’90s rap album that got lost in a downloading power outage. Then there was our boy band album. That one we had to scrap for legal reasons and move to the Cayman Islands. That’s where I’ve been livin’ for the last 10 years. But this album, this one is really for the kids.”

This is the history of the Meat Puppets that guitarist/singer Curt Kirkwood offers, in a recent article in Cleveland Scene, to those unacquainted with the trio’s background. In truth, the Meat Puppets (composed of Kirkwood, his brother Cris on bass and vocals, and drummer Ted Marcus replacing original Derrick Bostrom) released a steady stream of rock/country/punk/jazz-influenced albums from 1981 to 1995, when the original trio disbanded due to Cris’s drug abuse. The band’s demise coincided with their rise to fame; while a fixture on underground circuits for a long time—the Meat Puppets released albums on Black Flag’s famous SST label—the Meat Puppets experienced a meteoric rise to mainstream fame after Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain cited them as major influences and brought them onto his MTV Unplugged special.

After 1995, Curt Kirkwood continued to release albums under the Meat Puppet name, but the group’s sound was completely different due to the fact that the distinctive rhythm section had been fully replaced. After a stint in jail, Cris emerged in 2006 sober and ready to play music again. He and Curt, accompanied by Ted Marcus instead of Bostrom, began work on a new album entitled Rise to Your Knees, released in July of this year. They began touring soon afterward and are playing shows until October 7.

I saw the Meat Puppets play New York’s Knitting Factory on August 30, 2007. Curt was wandering around before his set, meeting fans, and signing autographs. For a man used to playing huge arenas, the move was a testament to the Puppets’ newly humble behavior. I saw Curt in February of 2006 on a solo tour, and while he’s a talented enough musician to pull off a two-hour acoustic set, he really shines when on stage with his brother. Cris looked great energetically striding around stage, jumping up and down like a wild man, and distorting his features with a series of hilarious faces. Clearly, he had pulled himself together —he weighed over 300 pounds upon his release from jail, but he looked about half that when I saw him, and his exceptional bass playing hadn’t suffered a bit.

The show itself was a vintage Puppets performance. The Kirkwoods’ matching curly manes and Cris’s maniacal onstage motions hearkened back to their glory days in the ’80s and early ’90s. Even the set list could have been taken from an earlier time—the Meat Puppets played almost nothing from their new album, preferring to mix classic recordings (“Up on the Sun,” “Oh, Me,” “Sam”), mainstream favorites (“Lake of Fire,” “Backwater”), and bluegrass standards (“My Baby’s Gone”). While Curt’s excellent musicianship was evident in his guitar (and whistling!) solos, Cris showcased his voice on a number of songs: I especially loved his angry take on the usually melodic “Station,” as he almost spit out the lyrics. The hallmark of Puppets’ songs, the famed harmonizing between the brothers, was prominent throughout the show.

The Meat Puppets are back, and based on the positive reactions to their live shows and new release, they’re still on top of their game.