Volume 20 Issue 17 | September 7 - 13, 2007

Joe Cultice

Meat Puppets show signals a change for The Knit

By Todd Simmons

After surviving a tumultuous decade of personal demons, family tragedy and fluctuating musical trends, the Austin-based, desert-raised band, the Meat Puppets, sounded as vitally ragged as ever during the first of their two shows last week at the Knitting Factory. It wasn’t so much a comeback as a re-convergence, as the Kirkwood brothers played their first New York show together in more than seven years. With a new team of in-house promoters aiming to reassert its place in the city’s club hierarchy amidst booming competition, the Knitting Factory seems to be attempting a similar feat.

With the rise of Bowery Presents from boutique booker of the Mercury Lounge to formidable promoter of acclaimed bands at multiplying venues like Bowery Ballroom, Webster Hall and the new spaces Terminal 5 and The Music Hall of Williamsburg, the legendary Knitting Factory must continue to book acts like the Meat Puppets, and beyond, if they intend to compete for not only the almighty dollar but survival. With the world’s largest concert promoter, Live Nation, also brandishing a large fin in local waters, booking Hammerstein Ballroom, Roseland, the new Gramercy Theatre and the re-named Fillmore (formerly Irving Plaza), there may not be enough talent to feed everybody.

The new promoters Chantelle Hylton and Peter Agoston maintain that the Knitting Factory is still a valuable space, especially Downtown where the recent closings of multiple clubs including CBGB and Tonic have left a void. Unsubstantiated rumors of the club moving locations at some point notwithstanding, they are still booking shows seven days a week. When asked if they feel the need to compete with the likes of Bowery Presents, Agoston said, “Certainly. New York City is a competitive playing field especially for an independent venue that’s up against a multi-tiered corporate infrastructure.” He continued, “It makes the job equal parts fun and challenging. Battling the big boys is what makes you stronger. I thrive off that competition.”

Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf told Downtown Express back in April during the club’s 20th anniversary celebration that despite the ever-daunting economic climate in Manhattan the club still held a unique place in the community.

“Clubs do change and I think the Knitting Factory is an important club in terms of presenting alternative music in New York,” he said. “There are very few clubs that have folk one night, Klezmer the next and rap the following.”

Hylton, who came to New York from Portland, Oregon, said she’d like to book the kind of exciting and eclectic bands that are coming out of that city lately. Agoston, who joined the club as a former independent promoter added, “I’m a lover of music. I’ve got 10,000 records in my apartment, so naturally I have a long list of artists and groups I’d like to bring to the club. As you see the months unfold at The Knit, you’ll also see some of those artists hit our various stages”.

The Meat Puppets gig was a good example of an outfit maintaining its integrity over the course of a long career, falling in and out of public favor yet forging on for the sheer kick of making music. An early ’80s band from Arizona that shared a record label (SST) with some of the most pioneering punk bands of our time (Bad Brains, Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Sonic Youth) the Meat Puppets were truly ahead of the curve.

The amalgamated sound and wide-spread success that bands like Wilco, Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon and The Flaming Lips have enjoyed can be traced to the elemental mixture of country, bluegrass, rock, punk and psychedelia that Curt and Cris Kirkwood developed 25 years ago. Despite the obvious effects of a serious bout with crack and heroin addiction, having survived a gunshot to the abdomen in a bizarre parking lot dispute that resulted in prison time for the bassist, and other troubles too numerous to catalogue, Cris Kirkwood has rejoined his older brother Curt to record a new album (“Rise To Your Knees”) and hit the road once again.

The crowd whooped their approval when they broke out a few of their original songs, notably “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau,” that Nirvana famously covered for their “Unplugged” album, briefly jacking up the Meat Puppets public profile in the mid ’90s. Kurt Cobain’s fandom of the band started when he witnessed their opening performance on a Black Flag bill and his endorsement launched the Meat Puppets to previously unknown commercial heights. But the lesser-known work, especially the up-tempo, distorted, boogie-psych jams seemed to make the band the happiest and most inspired at the Knitting Factory.

The Kirkwood brothers used to look nearly identical before troubled times took their toll on Cris, who is considerably thinner than his older brother these days. On Wednesday night he resembled a jubilant cross between Charles Manson and Animal from the “Muppets Show” as he bounced around with his scraggly beard and unruly hair thumping away on the bass. Seemingly sober, he looked and sounded happy to be there, and the band fed on his energy, igniting the crowd in the process.

“Good evening everyone!” he gleefully shouted at the start of the show, “It’s been a while. It’s been too damned long!” The show would prove to be worth the wait, as they tore through old SST classics and songs from the new album alike with a loose familiarity that was both engaging and surprisingly moving. Curt made a lot of cool noise on his sky blue guitar and handled the bulk of the vocals, and new drummer Ted Marcus kept time with crafty stick play, but it was clearly the combined energy and talents of the Kirkwood brothers on the same stage that made the whole thing cook and their loyal fans were glad to see it happen again after all this time.

The three-story Knitting Factory in Tribeca seems to be counting on the good feeling that its unique programming and versatile layout has generated over the past twenty-plus years while attempting to keep stride with escalating booking competition. Not surrendering in the face of looming challenges from “the big boys” of Bowery Presents and Live Nation, they seem determined to continue their legacy of presenting maverick artists in a classic Downtown venue. Only time will tell if there are enough of them to go around.

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