It wouldn't be an exaggeration, nor an insult, to categorize the Meat Puppets as the Grateful Dead of the punk scene. Formed in 1980 by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom, the Arizona-based trio is prone to long jams and meandering solos, and depends on "trees" to elevate their creativity into another dimension. By their third album on the legendary SST Records -- 1985's Up on the Sun -- the group's members had already alienated much of their core punk audience with allusions to acid rock, country and folk, causing them to be tagged as hippies.
That was OK with Dirty Faces bassist Mike Bonello, who already had a penchant for the Dead (and who will open the Puppets' Fri., June 5, show at Mr. Small's).
"Growing up in Latrobe in the '80s, I didn't get the college station or read the magazines, so the Meat Puppets were my gateway band," Bonello says. "They showed that you could play amped-up psychedelic rock, and you didn't have to play covers."
Back when Bonello and his friends were starting Tiny Little Help -- the seminal band which kicked off what was to be known as the local "Rickety" scene -- the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen (another SST unit) were major influences. "Both of them played counter to the expectations of what punk and hardcore bands were doing, material-wise," he says. "The Puppets were long-haired freaks who would sometimes pull out an Allman Brothers tune. In seeing them a bunch of times over the years, what resonates with me is the way they're still playing together after overcoming personal problems."
Bonello refers to the rampant drug abuse by bassist Cris Kirkwood following the band's brief meteoric rise in the '90s, which was buoyed by Kurt Cobain associations and the single "Backwater," culled from the gold record Too High to Die. Curt Kirkwood formed a different Puppets lineup from 1999-2002, then regrouped in 2006 with new drummer Ted Marcus when Cris finally cleaned up a bit.
Currently, the Meat Puppets are entering a new era of productivity, issuing Rise to Your Knees on the Anodyne label in 2007 and then switching to Megaforce Records for Sewn Together, released last month.
"The Meat Puppets were gods to us, and opening for them is a big thing," concludes Bonello, "because of the way they play their live show. They simply put out more energy than any band I've ever seen, rocking out with reckless abandon [and] eyes rolled back in their heads. They've always pushed themselves to the far fringes of their ability, and that's what makes them so good."
Meat Puppets with Retribution Gospel Choir and Dirty Faces. 9 p.m. Fri., June 5. Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $13. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com