Meat Puppets - Square Roots Festival, Chicago

by Texacaliago Rating: Release Date:

Roughly half the year, Chicago can be a rather unpleasant place to live by most people’s standards.  Between the notoriously harsh winters and the eternally dreary and raw nature of “spring”, the often bleak weather thrown at us can be more than a little grating at times.  And while many Chicagoans take pride in our ability to trudge through the toughest of conditions, even the most hardened among us secretly question our sanity in tolerating such bleak weather most of the year…or perhaps I’m just speaking for myself.

Whatever the case, something magical happens every year that makes it all worth it and then some: the arrival of summer.  Yes, summer in Chicago is a truly special time of year, as it exudes a certain celebratory spirit of love and warmth that you’d be hard pressed to top in any other city.  The streets are filled with the smell of good food, the sights of shiny happy people smiling ear to ear, and the sound of jovial music fills the air.  There are a multitude of neighborhood festivals to choose from on any given weekend, and if you’re lucky, there might even be some good bands on the bill to boot.

Such was the case at the 6th Annual Square Roots Festival which took place in my old neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where one of my all-time favorite bands, the Meat Puppets, were headlining Day 2 of the festival on Saturday night.  Sponsored by the Old Town School of Folk Music (a local teaching and performing institution founded in 1957), the Square Roots Festival has grown from a modest neighborhood festival attracting 100s to one of the most popular summer festivals in all of Chicago.  Now attracting well into the 1000s each day, the Square Roots Festival stands out for its celebration of all things local, offering a wide array of craft beer selections, great eats from local restaurants, eclectic arts and crafts, and a quality music lineup that has a fittingly folkish and indie flavor to it.

So in many respects, it was the perfect setting for a band like the Meat Puppets, who are old-school quirky indie-rock heroes in their own right, and have always had more than a little inclination to the country/folk side of things in their sound.  But before they hit the stage, Cris Kirkwood was nice enough to drop by the aforementioned Old Town School Folk to partake in a quick bass-guitar lesson for the students and other onlookers in attendance.  I actually stumbled upon this by accident as I was walking past the school and noticed Mr. Kirkwood in the window, so I immediately seized on the opportunity to drop-in and check that out.  He told a few stories about the old days, why he chose bass guitar (it looked cool), how he started playing punk-rock (it seemed easy), and proceeded to lead the group of about 10-15 other students in an acoustic jam session of “Lake of Fire”, to which everyone in attendance (including nosey onlookers like myself) sang along to with full throated enthusiasm. 

Not a bad warm-up for the main event which took place about 30 minutes later to a packed crowd on an absolutely perfect 70F (that’s 21C for the rest of the world) Chicago evening. The Pups opened in raucous (and amusing) fashion with “Sam” from the severely underrated (and for my money, possibly their best album) Forbidden Places. Throughout the night, they peppered in a good variety of standards from their classic 80s catalog (like “Lost”, “Plateau”, and a heavy/extended version of “Lake of Fire”), along with a few surprises from their often overlooked Monsters album like “Touchdown King” and a thunderous version of “Attacked By Monsters”.  They also threw in a couple of covers, some of which I did not quite recognize outside of an extra-hokey rendition of “Whisky in the Jar”, but they all seemed to fit in well with the tone and vibe of their other material.

But if you’ve never seen the Meat Puppets live, what really stands out the most about their performances are their extended jam sessions that often evolve into an intensely noisy and psychedelic hoedown that is pretty awesome to behold.  Shandon Sahm’s relentlessly bouncy and propulsive drumming is positively infectious live (hence the “hoedown”), and the Kirkwood brothers play off each other brilliantly and really push their instruments and equipment to their sonic limit at times.  They did this most impressively on their extended jam of “Up on the Sun” which stretched near the 10 minute mark and took on an almost sinisterly tribal flavor to it with its wall-of-sound sonic intensity.  It may sound strange to folks that are only familiar with the delightfully transcendent studio version of the song, but witnessing the extended live performance is an experience unto itself and was probably the highlight of the night for yours truly.

That would have been a fitting way to close the show, but the Pups came back for a couple of encores, the first of which was a fun (albeit slightly underwhelming) performance of “Climbing” from Meat Puppets II, before they officially closed out the show with, you guessed it, the highly overrated (but still enjoyable nonetheless) “Backwater” from their mainstream breakout album Too High to Die.

Seeing the Meat Puppets live is always a uniquely eccentric and warm experience.  It’s hard not to smile ear to ear during most of their songs, as they just kind of have that endearingly quirky and spastic energy about them (not to mention the fact they are just plain great musicians).  Considering all the good vibes that permeate through Chicago during summer festival season, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fitting and enjoyable band to jam the night away with than the one and only Meat Puppets, and they certainly fit the bill in that regard on Saturday night.

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