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At their induction into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2017, the Meat Puppets, one of the most compelling, original and enduring bands in rock history, managed to both honor their story and introduce its next chapter.
On that night in August, at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, founding members Curt Kirkwood, on vocals and guitar; his brother Cris Kirkwood, on bass and vocals; and Derrick Bostrom, on drums, joined together onstage for the first time in over two decades. Throughout a set that included era-defining songs like “Lake of Fire,” “Plateau” and “Backwater,” the chemistry was more than promising, as Bostrom isn’t shy to point out. “It was so intense that even I couldn’t deny it!” he recalled recently. “It was just like, now I remember why we did this. It was magical.”
The white-hot enthusiasm he felt at that awards ceremony in Phoenix hasn’t waned. That rekindling has resulted in Dusty Notes, the band’s new Megaforce release and the first Meat Puppets studio album Bostrom has participated in since 1995’s No Joke! “This is a classic situation where the project took us over and we way exceeded our expectations,” he said of Dusty Notes, going on to call it the “best record we’ve ever done.”
Veteran Meatheads might scoff. After all, what could possibly top the warped, punk-infused country-rock of Meat Puppets II, the funky, jammy psychedelia of Up on the Sun or the hook-filled hard rock of Too High to Die? But Bostrom—and Dusty Notes—should be heard out. Since the band debuted in the early ’80s, Curt Kirkwood has continually proven himself to be among the most brilliant songwriters of his generation. Time after time, album after album, he’s demonstrated an extraordinary ability to draw upon various roots and rock styles en route to a unique new vision of what the Meat Puppets can be. His latest contributions, especially songs such as “Warranty,” “On,” “Nine Pins,” “Outflow” and the title track, evoke only the finest work by the finest American songwriters. Without credits on hand, you might take Dusty Notes for a covers collection that excavates forgotten gems from Nashville, Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon.
But with the exception of a reverent cover of the country standard “Sea of Heartbreak,” Dusty Notes is solely a testament to Kirkwood’s wise songcraft—and to the state-of-the-art Meat Puppets lineup that makes his new songs so vital. In addition to the newly reformed founding trio, the album features keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, a jazz-trained virtuoso adept at any style, and Curt Kirkwood’s son Elmo, whose old-school rock-guitar grit ideally complements his father’s spacier explorations. Intuitive, inspired and overflowing with genuine musicianship, it’s the sort of band that can transform what Curt describes as “simple yet engaging” songs into maiden voyages each night on the road. “I can ignore my vocal and listen to the other four guys play,” Kirkwood said, chuckling. “They’re all so good.”
Or as Bostrom put it, “Curt really wanted to do something that he could enjoy playing and the band could really sink their teeth into. This doesn’t feel like an oldies act; it feels like the culmination.”
For the Meat Puppets, the backstory that led to that peak reads like a kind of Great American Rock Novel. It begins with kids, enamored of music and immersed in the psychedelic drug culture of Arizona in the ’70s, who find their way to punk rock, painstakingly become one of the most important bands of the American underground and go on to achieve mainstream rock stardom. A hiatus and resurrection follow, as Kirkwood doggedly furthers the Meat Puppets’ legacy—first on his own, and then alongside his brother, who’d conquered profound personal demons.
Stepping outside the band again, Bostrom can only marvel at the brothers’ tenacity. “The Meat Puppets have just been a really, really deep font of creativity,” he said. “Love it or hate it, hit or miss, Curt is just prodigious. When I got to know these guys again, I realized that they are still living the rock lifestyle; they’re not doing it by half measures. They stayed on the road. These guys are uncompromising. I consider the Meat Puppets to be a national treasure.”
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