- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Since he was a teenager, Curt Kirkwood has spent the better part of his life in a band.

Most of that time the singer, songwriter and guitarist played with his brother Chris in the Meat Puppets, a group that flirted with mainstream success but spent most of its life in the rock underground. When it disbanded a few years ago, Mr. Kirkwood began to work with other bands, the best known being Eyes Adrift, which featured former members of Nirvana and Sublime.

Now, after more than two decades as a cog in a larger wheel, Mr. Kirkwood is striking out on his own as he tours behind his first solo album, “Snow.” He plays Saturday at Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington.

“I had kind of been wanting to do something else for a while,” Mr. Kirkwood, 47, says from his home in Austin, Texas. “I just wanted to have a record that was singer-songwriter-oriented and not so band-oriented.”

More than that, the Meat Puppets are about to regroup, with a new record in the works that has nine songs roughly completed.

For a time back in the early 1990s, the Meat Puppets — a trio that then included Chris Kirkwood on bass and Derrick Bostrom on drums — were poised to be the “next big thing” as they were tapped to be the opening act on Nirvana’s 1993 tour. That led to the moment when many music fans first heard of the group, as the band performed three of their songs with Nirvana on a legendary episode of “MTV Unplugged.”

Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain, who died not long after the program was taped, was a big Meat Puppets fan and helped catapult the group into the mainstream. The Puppets’ song “Backwater” began playing on MTV and the radio, and the trio gained a spot on the summer 1994 Stone Temple Pilots tour, one of the biggest of the year.

It might have been the moment when the band forever gained a commercial foothold in the music world, but it didn’t last long, Mr. Kirkwood says.

“We tried to kind of rise to the occasion,” he says now. “But we knew it was a fluke.”

Mr. Kirkwood’s brother Chris’ drug addiction helped derail the group; Mr. Kirkwood has described his brother as “irreplacable.” The Meat Puppets’ subsequent records were poorly reviewed and didn’t do well on the charts — partly because its music, skirting the boundaries between hard rock, punk and country blues, has never fit into any neat categories, making it hard to market.

And although Mr. Kirkwood, always the driving force behind the Meat Puppets, recorded another album under the Meat Puppets name (the group’s last recording, 2000’s “Golden Lies”), he was the only original member.

Several songs on Mr. Kirkwood’s new album could easily have been Meat Puppets songs, but are less hard-rocking without a full band backing him. In his press materials, he’s pegged as a “psychedelic Woody Guthrie,” which is a fairly apt description for an album filled with tunes that mesh rock, country, folk and blues.

“In a lot of ways it was an experiment to see what the solo thing would be,” Mr. Kirkwood says of the new album. “I’ll do another one. I like doing it.”

On his current tour opening for the folk country group the Handsome Family, it’s mostly he and a guitar, he says. It won’t be long, though, before the Meat Puppets hiatus comes to an end and he’s back with a full band — including a new drummer and brother Chris, clean and sober after his battle with addiction.

The new album, Mr. Kirkwood says, will be the “ultimate” Meat Puppets album, with “big rock.”

Music has been Mr. Kirkwood’s job for his entire life, and it’s something he doesn’t ever see backing away from.

“There’s not much else I’d want to do,” he says. “I got bit so hard by the music.”

• • •

Like the Meat Puppets, another group that has been together for decades well outside the American mainstream is Konono No 1. What makes the African group unique is its use of an electrified likembe, sometimes called a “thumb piano,” which uses metal rods on a wooden board to make sounds similar to those of a xylophone.

The results, which can be heard on the album “Congotronics,” is distorted and otherworldly, giving a haunting quality to the rest of the ensemble’s music. Like the funk jazz of Fela Kuti, the Congolese band records long, jamming songs that are heavy on percussion and group singing.

Some of the same melodies weave in and out of “Congotronics,” giving the album the feel of a classic jazz record, but this isn’t music for sitting still. The driving drum beats propel the songs along at breakneck speed and the repetition is more akin to electronic trance music.

Intrigued? Check the band out tomorrow night at the Black Cat.

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