PHOENIX — You know you're dealing with a maverick rock band when one of the group's biggest fans tells you before a show, "I just love their new album. . . . I hope they do something from it tonight." Something from it?
With most bands, you're guaranteed a barrage of material from the new album, because one of the group's main goals onstage is to sell the new record.
The Meat Puppets' audience, however, has learned never to take anything for granted.
This fiercely independent trio delighted adventurous fans last year with "Meat Puppets II," an album whose winsome prairie-punk style was saluted on numerous critics' Top 10 lists. But in concert, the Puppets seemed to delight in confusing those same fans and critics.
Paying scant attention to what was on the record, the Puppets typically turned to whatever musical approach suited their fancy that night, be it spacey psychedelia or a return to the band's early, unintelligible punk.
That left even admirers wondering if the Puppets didn't have a few strings loose. This startling lack of focus and accessibility onstage suggested that the group either had no desire to reach a wider audience or didn't know how to go about it.
The Puppets' new "Up on the Sun" album helps resolve that question. It's a far more focused and consistent work that balances the calming, spacious feel of the Arizona desert with gentle yet probing tales about the search for values and purpose in this age of cynicism and disbelief. The band's live show, too, has become far more satisfying and approachable. And, yes, they did several songs from the new album in a homecoming show at the Mason Jar club here last weekend.
This adds up to a major step forward by a band that had already established itself as one of the most promising members of the New American Underground.
About the new confidence and philosophy, singer-guitarist Curt Kirkwood said, "I think a lot of the confusion about what we were doing was because we hadn't really figured out what we wanted to do or how we related to the audience.
"We went into the studio this time with a new attitude. We didn't want to spell everything out in our music. I like a bit of mystery so that you have to look at it like a puzzle. But we also wanted to strip away some of the chaos. We aren't interested in just being a cult band. I've never been into arty or avant-garde type of music. That's real cold and clinical to me. My heroes were Elvis and the Beatles."
The Mason Jar was so crowded the night of the Meat Puppets' show that it took several minutes to weave your way the length of the 35-foot wooden bar to the dance floor in front of the stage. Could it be that the nationally acclaimed trio was finally being honored in its hometown?
For many of the 200 people in the room, the Mason Jar is just a favorite date spot. The evening's attraction is almost irrelevant to them--except in terms of the kind of audience it attracts.
"We don't care who is playing here--unless it's a heavy-metal band," explained one regular in his mid-20s. "The heavy-metal audience is too stupid. You never meet any interesting people at those shows. I'm not really into the Puppets' music, but they attract an interesting bunch of fans, everything from brainy college students to punks."
One of Puppets' fans--a 22-year-old who fell closer to the brainy college student category--suggested that the casualness of many in the crowd was typical of Phoenix rock fans.
"A lot of the people who come here don't even listen to the band," Jerry Montgomery said contemptuously. "They just sit in the back and talk unless the group has a big name. If you put the Rolling Stones in here under a different name, most people wouldn't even notice who it was. To them, the Meat Puppets is just some freaky cult group passing through town."
Montgomery may be too hard on local fans. Wherever you go, mainstream audiences think of the Meat Puppets as a freaky cult group.
Formed here five years ago by Curt Kirkwood, his younger brother Cris (bass, backup vocals) and drummer Derrick Bostrom, the trio started as a hard-core thrash band, offering versions of tunes by punk outfits like the Sex Pistols, the Dils and the Damned. Bostrom then started writing songs in that style for the group, which released an album in 1982 on Black Flag's SST Records. The debut LP, "Meat Puppets I," was such an impenetrable wall of noise that it remains a sort of perverse classic.
When writing reins in the band shifted early last year to Curt Kirkwood, the group moved to the softer prairie-punk style that mixed pieces of country sentimentality with its old buzz-saw rhythm. Key songs on "Meat Puppets II" like "Lost (on the Freeway Again)" and "Split Myself in Two" were wry, affecting reflections on alienation.
Still, the production and the playing on the record were far too ragged for mainstream listeners, and even fans of the album threw up their hands over the live show chaos.