At the downstairs bar of the Variety Arts Center on Friday, a longtime fan of the Meat Puppets was overheard explaining the Arizona-based band's appeal to an earnest newcomer.
"Their message is that it is still possible to pursue a happy childhood," the fan explained, tongue only slightly in cheek.
When the Puppets' devotee went on to quote some of the group's more high-flown lyrics--involving flights of fancy and wonderment in the midst of down-to-earth insecurities, with occasional references to angels or goblins, even--the novice asked if perhaps the band had some kind of "spiritual" awareness.
No, suggested the fan, tongue still in cheek, just spaciness.
Ah--the Grateful Dead comparison comes up again.
On record, the Meat Puppets--a favorite these days of the college-alternative radio set--have been rated quite favorably against the Dead. This is due to their shared incorporation of country music sounds, their slightly cynical wistfulness and vaguely happy-trippy tone, and, last but not least (and this makes the Puppets especially unique for a post-punk band), their use of major chords.
But Friday, one thought of the Dead comparison mostly in terms of excess and flatulent self-indulgence, as the Puppets perpetrated an inexcusably sleepy and sloppy two-hour set on a capacity crowd.
The show got off to a reasonable start, with singer-guitarist Curt Kirkwood (dressed in what appeared to be a pair of pajamas) and bassist Cris Kirkwood (in what looked like a pajama top fashionably clashing with spandex pants) faithfully reproducing some of the better riffs from the fine new "Huevos" album.
Drummer Derrick Bostrom quickly established himself as the instrumental mainstay of the trio, operating like the proverbial well-oiled machine even when the situation around him deteriorated--as it rapidly did, after about 45 minutes.
Concentrating less and less on their own material, the Kirkwoods soon entered into Replacements territory, bestowing some of the most sickly, deliberately out-of-tune "harmonies" ever sung upon a multitude of rock and country classics (from the George Jones weeper "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy") during extended jams.
If this kind of wheel-spinning slop is so endearing when the Replacements do it live, why is it so irritating when the Meat Puppets do it?
Possibly because the Replacements are a band with a constantly high emotional charge--even when they're slacking off, playing bad renditions of other people's songs--whereas the Meat Puppets are a more distant, cerebral outfit. The words, already obscure enough, certainly can't be made out in concert, and once the high musicianship slips into loose "informality," there's not much left. Certainly there wasn't much emotional content anywhere along the long-winded way--not unless you count goofing off as an emotion.
Walkouts were numerous well before the 150 minutes were up, but it should be noted that most of the faithful stayed and appeared to dig the messy shenanigans through and through. Maybe it all depends on whether you've come to hear a concert or a pajama party.
The Reivers--an Austin-based quartet formerly known as Zeitgeist--opened the show with some genuine attempts at harmonies between lead singers Kim Longacre and John Croslin. While some of the group's material comes off as too oblique, underdeveloped or just nondescript ("defies easy classification" is how their promotional material puts it), their catchier, folk-oriented rock songs (such as "Wait for Time") offer promise enough for now.
The Meat Puppets will try it again Feb. 7 at the Coach House, Feb. 9 at Bogart's and Feb. 11 at the Green Door, while the Reivers headline the Lingerie on Saturday.