Heavy-duty “cowpunk” doesn’t come around too often – or at least not to Melbourne. So seeing The Meat Puppets is a pretty special thing. Their sound; a heavily distorted, punk-ified mesh of country and bluegrass, brings to mind everything we’d like to think of Middle America – thoughts of flying down an Arizona highway at the helm of a rusty shit-mobile. A rusty shit-mobile with its exhaust pipe chugging to the brink of explosion under the desert sun, cornered by rolling paddocks everywhere. After 24 years of formation, the rusty mobile that is the Meat Puppets is far from exhaustion.
The Arizona four-piece led by brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood opened with an instrumental, showcasing an ‘Over The Hills’-esque bluegrass lick (x100 distortion) that would reappear frequently throughout the set. Elmo Kirkwood, son of lead-guitarist Curt and a band member since 2011, comprised the third part of the frontline. He took rhythmic, brutal swipes of his mint green Stratocaster at every necessary turn – all the while driven by the fast-paced stomp of drummer Shandon Sahm. Worth noting is that Sahm entered the stage shirtless; an early indication that breaks would be seldom throughout the set.
This indication was correct. They merged songs with reverberated interludes until the fuzzed-out wall of noise tumbled into the two-note intro of ‘Plateau’. The first wave of howls from the audience ensued, of whom ‘a sea of tangled long hair’ is the best description I can offer. The Meat Puppets’ delivery of their most well-known songs was strong: the performance being an ample culmination of their basic setup, arsenal of pedals, and the expected tightness that comes with their more-than-twenty years of being a band. Bassist Cris Kirkwood bobbed around the center as he plucked away at his rather boppy, blues-washed lines that put some extra pop in the step of the steam truck tunes.
They played a mix of old and new. ‘Oh, Me’ was performed somewhere in the midst of tracks from their 2013 LP Rat Farm and 2011’s Lollipop – which included the title track and the boot-stomping ‘Lantern’. A simplified cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’ followed. On their part, they made clever use of the song’s lyrics; the repetition of ‘I wanna go home’ making the pop track seem like a country ballad from the get-go. On the topic of covers – that three of their songs became arguably their most famous when in 1993, the Kirkwood brothers joined Nirvana on stage at MTV Unplugged in New York to play them, was an elephant in the (band)room on the evening – but it did little to deter the audience’s excitement from the rest of the set. Rather, other tracks from their second LP The Meat Puppets II including ‘Split Myself in Two’ evoked equal excitement amongst the crowd – so much so that it was during this song that a younger bloke standing somewhere to my right began punching his own face out of excitement.
They ended the set with ‘Lake of Fire’; structurally and melodically a damned good pop song with its lyrics somehow innocently apocalyptic. A funny, eerie singalong extended by a guitar-heavy jam out. Of course, as aesthetically shambolic as the performance conveyed itself to be – every strum was exactly in time, every playful bass scale bumped the set up a notch, and every song constituted an explosion of country-inspired punk orchestrated to a tee. In turn, every member of the crowd went home with their expectations pleasingly fulfilled – probably exceeded given the tendency of older rock bands to run out of steam and consequently disappoint.
The Meat Puppets sure as hell didn’t.