Live review: The Meat Puppets in Madison

Time may have passed the Meat Puppets by, but the great thing about the brothers Kirkwood — plus drummer Ted Marcus — is they don’t care about trying to keep up with current trends.

Sure their high-water mark, at least commercially, was Too High To Die, which somehow dovetailed with the grunge phenomenon of the 1990s, but that was more of an accident. Not a fluke, but an accident, one of those cosmic happenstances where the planets align for an act like the Meat Puppets, these psychedelic hippie cowboys from the desert who started out as a loud square peg in the hardcore scene of the early ’80s and seemingly couldn’t care less if they ever got on the charts.

That nonchalance toward the business end of their own career, thankfully, has never resulted in half-assed music, as they’ve proven with their last two albums, Rise To Your Knees and their current offering, Sewn Together. Being the sponges that they are they’ve soaked up all the knowledge of traditional roots music they could and combined it with a Salvador Dali-style approach to fusing psychedelic and punk into a sound that is, and always has been, wholly original.

Curt Kirkwood should be considered among the great guitarists of his generation, a savvy navigator of mind-blowing atmospherics and uncharted psychedelia who is equally adept at flying through hot and authentic country material in a way that would boggle Buck Owens’ mind.

Curt alone was worth the price of admission last Friday as the Meat Puppets (www.myspace.com/themeatpuppets) sent a big crowd at The Annex in Madison, Wis., on a wild, acid-laced journey through all kinds of musical environs. You could sense the joy the two brothers now experience playing live after a dormant period brought on by Cris’ troubles with drugs and the law, especially as they launched into the sunny, bouyant title track off their latest LP to start the show. “Blanket of Weeds,” from Rise To Your Knees, came on a couple of songs later and the strong current of its subtle melody and its forceful chorus grabbed you by the arm and didn’t let go.

Whistling like a pro, Curt and company run through “Maiden’s Milk” from the Up On The Sun LP, and eventually, the Meat Puppets ran into their biggest hit “Backwater.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Puppets, who dredged up a lot of their old material, seemed less than passionate in playing it, as if they were doing it just because they knew the audience would go home unhappy if they didn’t. They seemed as if they couldn’t wait to get it over with. With “Backwater’ in their rearview mirror, though, the rest of the show was a glorious, formless mess of jamming that was utterly captivating.

And speaking of glorious messes, before the Meat Puppets took the stage, Athens, Ga.’s Dark Meat (visit www.vicerecords.com to learn more) regaled everyone with a full-on blast of marching band Sturm und Drang, greasy R&B flavored garage-rock and crazed psychedelia that caused much head-scratching. Undeniably potent when they were focused and a little lost when they weren’t, Dark Meat was, nonetheless, entertaining — what with their trumpets and trombones and incredible walls of guitar noises. It was absolute chaos and everything rock and roll should be — thrilling, unpredictable and if you searched hard enough, you found grooves that were irresistible. (Below is a taste of what Dark Meat is all about)

Alan Sparhawk, better known for his work with Duluth, Minn., slowcore pioneers Low, was not as inspiring. Appearing more interested in engaging the audience in conversation, Sparhawk’s minimalistic approach didn’t have that powerful, emotional affect that Low can have on an audience. And by the end, when Sparhawk was asking for requests, he seemed disinterested and distracted and completely in his own world.

Fortunately, the Meat Puppets, with Cris Kirkwood bobbing around and steering the ship through tumultuous shifts in tempo and mood and Ted Marcus solidly bashing away, were far more interesting. Catch them while you still can.

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