The 1980s were a fertile time for American underground music, where the loose punk rock rules that had been laid down the decade before were disregarded and added to. The Meat Puppets were at the forefront of this scene, with a sound that mixed the burgeoning punk rock movement with a Dixie twang. The band performed at local bar Castaways on Thursday night for their Ithaca debut, with openers Dynasty Electric and Kirkwood Dellinger.
With a guitar player who looked like a hipster redneck and a singer wearing a long robe that brought to mind sorcery, New York City-based experimentalists Dynasty Electric kicked off the night. The band tried to recall the ’80s with their big beat backing track blasting from a laptop, coupled with a guitar sound that worked with the sound and riffed off it. The duo tried to highlight the sexual energy on stage by dancing all over each other, although a low hanging ceiling beam hampered this effort. The singer was trying too hard to be viewed as some enigmatic acid causality, with stage banter like “You’re beautiful. You’re giving me beautiful energy this evening.” While the band had an interesting and catchy sound that was hard to pinpoint, they tried too hard to impress and came off like an act.
Kirkwood Dellinger are almost not even worth mentioning. The band had a sound reminiscent of the worst elements of skater pop-punk and would never have won a slot opening for The Meat Puppets if the Kirkwood part of the band hadn’t been related to both core members of the band (his father is Curt Kirkwood, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, and his uncle is Cris Kirkwood, the bassist). Each member displayed musical proficiency, switching instruments on almost every song, but they had no idea how to write anything even remotely interesting. By the end of their set, the crowd booed them off stage with cries for the headliners, proving that the apple can fall far from the tree. Very far.
It’s not often that you get to see a legendary band in an environment best suited to their music. Getting to watch the Meat Puppets tear up the stage in a small bar, surrounded by fans who have been listening to their raucous music for decades, was ideal. The group is anchored by the brothers Kirkwood, and has been a presence on the alterative music scene since their self-titled hardcore punk debut album in 1982. However, the band is best known for their inclusion of country music into their sound, starting with their appropriately titled second album Meat Puppets II that came out in 1984, a mix that has influenced generations of musicians and earned the Arizona natives a distinguished place in the history books. Several songs from Meat Puppets II were covered by a little 90s band called Nirvana on their MTV Unplugged album, during which the Kirkwood brothers came out to help St. Kurt.
Understandably, the strongest moments of their set seemed to come from this seminal second album. Both the musicians onstage and the audience had huge grins on their faces during country fried versions of “Lost” and “Magic Toy Missing,” juxtaposed with harder tracks like “Lake of Fire.” The experimentation and lack of care for the rules of rock was evident 25 years after the album came out. Alongside these powerful early ’80s tunes were highlights from band’s long and storied career, from anthemic ’90s stomper “Backwater” to fresh tracks off their newest album Sewn Together. The one defining factor throughout the concert was the extended jams that were featured on every song, highlighting the interplay between the Kirkwood brothers and Curt’s virtuosic guitar playing. The group’s closing song, a souped-up medley of “I Wish I Was in Dixies” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” epitomized The Meat Puppets sound: a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.