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Meat Puppets @ U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, Summerfest

June 29, 2013

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When Nirvana crossed over into big mainstream success with Nevermind, Kurt Cobain admirably used his fame as a way to spread the gospel about the underground bands who influenced him, deflecting some of the relentless attention the band was receiving onto obscure names populating the rosters of K Records, Touch & Go and SST, the latter being the home of the Arizona’s Meat Puppets. Formed by the alliterative brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood in 1980, the band had been almost prolific, building a loyal cult following, but Nirvana exposed them to a global audience by inviting the Kirkwoods to help them cover some Meat Puppets tunes on MTV’s Unplugged, which in turn helped make 1994’s Too High to Die, with its earworm single “Backwater,” a commercial smash. Instead of making the most of that momentum however, the band dissolved into drug abuse, and back into obscurity.

A reunion around the turn of the millennium was doomed when Cris Kirkwood was sentenced to 21 months in prison for attacking a security guard (who then shot him), but they made another go of it in 2006, with a much rosier outcome, steadily releasing albums—the latest of which, Rat Farm, was released in April—and playing high-profile festivals on a regular basis. I’m not sure how high-profile opening for Cracker at Summerfest is, but the band seemed in high spirits on the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage Saturday, mugging for the camera and enthusiastically tackling both old and new material. Alongside selections from Rat Farm, the band mixed in plenty of covers, like the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” and the Texas Tornados lively “(Hey Baby) Que Paso,” and of course made time for some fan favorites like “Backwater” and “Oh Me.”

The breadth of styles in their catalogue, ranging from disaffected punk and jangly pop to some classic rock riffage and straight-up grunge, is impressive in its own right, but the set peaked with an extended, heavy jam on “Lake of Fire” from Meat Puppets II (and Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York). It was the kind of dynamic performance that should erase any notion that the Meat Puppets reunion is just some Gen X version of a nostalgia circuit band, which isn’t to say that there weren’t plenty of rapidly aging alternative types in attendance. But while they may have made up the lion’s share of what was a respectable crowd for an eight o’clock slot, there were also a decent number of kids and teenagers checking them out, which is a testament to the quality of the music and its lasting influence. Kurt Cobain knew what he was talking about.
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