Mike Watt and Meat Puppets rattle the windows at Underground Arts
Thumping his way through a sonorous solo, Mike Watt makes this pronouncement to a full basement at Underground Arts: “BASSSSSS!!” The delivery of both the declaration and the music is definitive, as if to make one thing clear: if you weren’t sure whether you’d ever heard a bassline before, you can be sure here, tonight. Watt stretches the single word affirmatively over the sounds, and lets it hang there for awhile. It’s not condescending; it’s instructive, as though at the end of a Sesame Street bit, as though we’ve just learned how to sound it out together, right there on the spot, with his guidance. Tonight’s set has been brought to you by the the letter “B.”
If you’re cool, you know of Watt from his heady hardcore days with The Minutemen and Firehose, in the seminal Southern Cali punk scene. But if you’re like me, you first heard about him when he mixed it up with the likes of more widely recognized ‘90s icons. Released in 1995, Watt’s first “solo” record Ball-Hog or Tugboat? was an ensemble effort, a virtual who’s-who of alt-rock featuring the likes of Frank Black, Thurston Moore, Kathleen Hanna, Anna Waronker and Flea, as well as Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl who joined him for the tour and who helped spotlight the bassist for some overdue mainstream attention.
Also appearing on that record were Cris and Curt Kirkwood, better known as The Meat Puppets, who not only shared a stage with Watt on Tuesday but a similar storyline as well: although most people who know of their music remember seeing them first onstage supporting Nirvana on MTV’s Unplugged in New York in December of 1993 (or else from their biggest radio hit “Backwater” from the following year), “the brothers Meat” — as Kurt Cobain once called them — have been making their specially branded “cowpunk” reliably and prolifically since their debut in 1982.
Tuesday’s co-headline at Underground Arts was a match made in alt-rock Valhalla. Supported by a band they’re calling “The Jom & Terry Show” (guitarist and vocalist Tom Watson and drummer Jerry Trebotic), Watt and co. focused heavily on Minutemen material, peppered with covers including the Stooges and Blue Oyster Cult. The Puppets’ lineup these days includes the percussion of the manic, shirtless Iggy-Pop doppelganger Shandon Sahm, and the blistering guitar distortion of a Curt-Kirkwood doppelganger too: his own son Elmo. Though the Pups nodded to successes they enjoyed thanks to Nirvana’s covers of “Plateau,” “Oh, Me” and “Lake Of Fire — the latter of which they rendered on Tuesday with scorching swagger, and interrupted with an extended instrumental interlude — they eschewed “Backwater” entirely. And where Watt’s set was often a vehicle for virtuosity that spotlighted his trademark prodigious basslines and solos, the Puppets’ showed off an almost inordinate diversity of style — everything from drawn-out psych jams and straightlaced metal riffs, to the traditional folk-rock of “Whiskey In The Jar,” and the waltz-time warbles of hillbilly hymnal “Mockin’ Bird Hill” — even if right where you might have expected a gleeful bluegrass fiddle to bully its way in you’d instead get a gleeful guitar solo every time.
It’s hard to miss the irony that, despite commercial success having finally arrived for both Watt and the Puppets via collaborations with some of their more famous musical descendants, artists like Vedder and Cobain would just as soon cite Watt and the Kirkwoods as their informative inspiration. Tuesday night’s show, to that end, was a fan’s show, with sets of brute force through-and-through, from the minute the punk-rocker from Pedro took the stage to the sweaty end of the Puppets’ encore. Pushing 60 now, the three of them, Mike Watt and the Kirkwoods are the genuine article, weathered vets of the rock culture canon who sound arguably better than ever.