Gray Taylor casts a critical eye over Meat Puppets’ performance at the Blackwood Miners’ Institute as part of Velvet Coalmine.
Every live concert has a certain amount of cultural exchange, but at this year’s Velvet Coalmine festival, Director Iain Richards surpassed most expectations of this by booking the legendary Meat Puppets to complete the weekend line up.
Formed in 1980, Meat Puppets were at the forefront of the US Hardcore scene of the early part of that decade. US Hardcore is sort of a post punk for a country that hadn’t really had punk, not the late seventies British version anyway. America preferred The Clash to the Sex Pistols since the former drew more heavily on American influences musically. America really didn’t understand the ethos of punk until the early nineties when their own socioeconomic situation was slowly but surely hitting the u-bend. It was only then America embraced punk, but mainly they embraced a band called Nirvana. But, Nirvana had embraced Meat Puppets and the US Hardcore bands a lot earlier than most of their peers.
Meat Puppets very quickly got tired of the restrictions of the hardcore sound. Short, snappy, shouty aggression did not allow for the thoughtfulness and musicianship these men had ambitions for. So, they created a new sound for themselves; some of the punk remained, a dash of Americana before that was really a thing, a good amount of psychedelia, and a squeeze of heavy rock – and the Meat Puppets were born. The sound and attitude was founded and delivered almost fully realised on their classic albums “Meat Puppets 2” and “Up On The Sun”, two of the very best albums of the 1980s.
Of course, a revolution in musical terms has never necessarily meant a revolution in monetary terms for a band. But, in 1994, the biggest band on the planet asked them to perform three of their classic tracks on a new MTV Unplugged broadcast. This band were, of course, Nirvana and they were going to make the world aware of their influences. They performed three of Meat Puppets’ very best; “Oh Me”, “Plateau”, and “Lake Of Fire”. Then, a few months later Kurt Cobain was dead and the Unplugged album released posthumously. But, the effect of that gesture lives on.
As I look around the Blackwood Miners Institute, it becomes clear that many of the audience would have discovered them via the Nirvana record, especially since some of them would possibly not even been born even within Nirvana’s lifetime. But, the power of the success of that band is certainly on display here. There is no doubt left when the Puppets launch into excellent versions of “Oh Me” and “Plateau”, where suddenly the atmosphere changes to one of a devotional love usually saved for big, international rammed-down-our-throats bands. But, it is a beautiful thing to see these humble musicians be so rapturously applauded for two brilliantly written songs they composed thirty one years ago. Like many of the classic tracks played tonight, the band elongate them into jams and give Curt Kirkwood the chance to solo on his guitar. There is no doubt of the psychedelic influences when these jams take place – they very strongly recall The Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa at his most sublime.
The core members of this band still remain, brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood are a rare example of the primary creators of a band’s sound remaining through many periods of change, hence always maintaining that consistent noise that we love so much. The harmonies that only siblings and maybe those close enough to each other can produce. They sound fantastic and so do the band. With drummer Shandon Sahm and rhythm guitarist Elmo Kirkwood perfectly realising the brothers’ vision of an all-encompassing countrified hardcore psychedelic punk.
The cultural exchange is in full flow, and the country picking punk of songs like “Up On The Sun” and “The Whistling Song”, are visibly surprising part of the audience and, somehow, perfectly communicating to them. The music seems so alien to Blackwood yet so absolutely perfect. This feeling comes full circle when the band launch into a cover of the traditional song “Sloop John B”. Made famous by the Beach Boys in the sixties and covered numerous times, I wonder if the band are aware at all of the Welsh rugby connection with this song? I’m sure they’re not, but it creates a perfect symmetry and would remain the glory of the night if it hadn’t, and quite stunningly, segued seamlessly into a truly glorious “Lake Of Fire”. This is a masterpiece amongst many masterpieces; brilliant lyrics, music, performance, it was always a highlight of the Puppets’ back catalogue, but tonight it truly takes it’s mantle as the masterpiece. Hard like Black Sabbath, precise like Woody Guthrie, transcendental like Hendrix at his most experimental. It is a classic performance of a classic song.
The whole set is quite revelatory for everyone there. I am personally taken aback by the authenticity of the psychedelia; all that is missing is a large amount of pot smoke circling the room and it could be the Fillmore in 1968. Others are taken aback by the hardcore sound, unfamiliar perhaps with the band’s initial SST Records releases. Others have just never heard anything like it in their lives. Whatever the stance, the room is full of smiles and joy at a great band enjoying their music and allowing us to enjoy it equally. The Meat Puppets were always much more than just a punk band and this hits home tonight.
For Meat Puppets to be playing in Blackwood is a triumph anyway. To feel the history is an honour. To witness the cultural exchange is humbling (the band had even turned up at a ‘How To Improve Blackwood’ forum held in the local Wetherspoons). The Meat Puppets owned Blackwood tonight, may their unique, wonderful sound continue to spread hand in hand with happiness.
To find out more about upcoming events at the Blackwood Miners’ Institute visit their website.
Gray Taylor is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.
(Photo Credits: Amelia Fae)