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Pop Music Review : These Frisky Rockers Are Nobody's Puppets

January 20, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

The Meat Puppets is part of a new breed of quality rock bands that appeal to your gambling instincts. And the Puppets certainly rolled the dice boldly in a warm, good-natured and constantly surprising show Friday at the Music Machine.

Traditionally, pop performers have isolated the elements in their concerts that worked best and served them up show after show. This standard Social Contract of Pop is the live equivalent of a greatest hits album--with a few new numbers to plug the latest LP.

With the Meat Puppets (and groups like the Replacements), you place your money at the box office and take your chances. No two shows are quite alike.

This approach would be disastrous at an arena-rock level where thousands of conservative rock fans (I'm thinking Phil Collins or Duran Duran crowds) shell out big bucks for the comfort of old faves.

As an alternative for more adventurous club fans, however, the freedom to move away from the boundaries of the last album is in keeping with rock's frisky, spontaneous nature.

Only the best bands, however, can keep you both off guard and satisfied. No question: The still-evolving Puppets is one of rock's best bands.

Depending on the trio's mood, the Arizona-based group's supercharged shows the last couple of years alternated between spacey psychedelia and almost unintelligible punk styles. But the Puppets' highly acclaimed "Up on the Sun" album last year (on the independent SST label) introduced a focused and controlled "prairie punk" approach that balanced calming and graceful instrumental textures with themes that examined values and constants in this anxious, uncertain age.

People who had been shaking their head over the band's shifting musical game plan began seeing a steady and original vision. Still, the Puppets remained outside the mainstream--especially to the radio/record industry establishment. Now that Warner Bros. has signed Husker Du, the Puppets have the dubious distinction of being the most acclaimed band in the country without a major-label record deal.

Hitting the Music Machine stage shortly after 1 a.m. to close an evening that also featured such well-regarded local groups as Blood on the Saddle and the Rave-Ups, the Puppets seemed intent on showing their ties to the mainstream rock tradition.

They opened with Led Zeppelin's nostalgic "Rock and Roll" and then incorporated pieces of everything from rockabilly and heavy metal to the Beatles and Penguins ("Earth Angel") into the head-shaking abandon of their set. Singer-guitarist Curt Kirkwood's long curly locks added a crazy sense of punctuation to the intensity of the music. Near the end, the band even serenaded the crowd with the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do Is Dream."

In between, the trio played a few of its own songs, including the enchanting title track from "Up on the Sun," and the seemingly divergent pieces fit together beautifully. Rather than take away from the accomplishments of the "Up on the Sun" album, the show helped put the music and vision in context.

In this ironic way, the Puppets proved once again that bands often best live up to spirit of rock by going against the prevailing conception of it.

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