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BEING THERE: Meat Puppets @ Underground Arts

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The Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

After the Meat Puppets’ first song at Underground Arts on Friday night, Curt Kirkwood’s son Elmo responded with a little cheek to a fan who called out his name to cheer him on. “What?!” Maybe he was annoyed, maybe not — but he almost immediately broke the tension with a fiendishly disarming grin, flashed from somewhere behind his cascading curls, and when the fan returned “We love you!,” the Pups’ heir-apparent backed down some more: “I love you too.”

They’re not much for stage banter, these hirsute Phoenix indie-rockers-cum-desert-mystics — in fact that early exchange would be just about the bulk of it for the evening — but they manage to charm and engage in their own way, not least of all through bassist Cris Kirkwood’s wild expressions, egging the crowd on from front-and-center throughout, as his flailing gray beard scrambles to keep up with his face.

Two years ago, the Puppets brought their psychedelic cowpunk to the same stage, co-headlining with southwestern-desert sun-dazed-rock compatriot Mike Watt, and played a fan’s set of old favorites that notably eschewed their biggest commercially successful single “Backwater.” This time around, the Kirkwoods — “the Brothers Meat,” as Kurt Cobain once affectionately called them — have reunited with original drummer Derrick Bostrom, after a hiatus of over twenty years, as well as 1969-era-Ray-Manzarek-adjacent Ron Stabinsky, to shine a hot lamp on newly released studio album Dusty Notes. It’s their 15th in almost 40 years, and everything about it feels instantly familiar on a first listen, from the Kirkwoods’ understated vocal harmonies to Elmo’s soaring solos. Top to bottom, it’s Meat Puppets for the soul.

Twenty songs of their beautifully strange marriage of hillbilly honky-tonk and psychedelic punk rock landed well after midnight, and with a wave and a nod the Pups retired to the green room. House music raised some eyebrows for those reasonably expecting some sort of encore, until the Kirkwoods and co returned moments later, strapped their guitars back on, and launched into the blazing first notes of “Backwater.” – JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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