Words by: Danny Ryan
Photos by: Jessica Moncrief
Mudhoney’s recent headlining show with Meat Puppets at the Regent Theater was an excellent celebration of the early roots of late 1980’s alternative music scenes that would later branch off into genres such as indie rock and grunge music. While both artists are vastly different in their sounds and aesthetics, they both represent an era of major expansion in the influences seen in the 80’s punk scene while maintaining its DIY ethics and aesthetics. While 90’s artists like Nirvana are often credited as the first to break down boundaries in the mainstream perspective of independent music scenes by bringing more variation into punk rock’s sound, there was an entire community of artists in the late 80’s responsible for exploring ways of transforming punk into a more diverse genre. With 1980’s culture having a large emphasis on the celebrity-like fanfare that rock stars and pop singers received during the period, bands like Mudhoney and Meat Puppets were crucial in creating spaces for artists that wanted to place more importance in their passion for independent music rather than the ego-driven attitudes seen in other rock scenes of the time.
The down-to-earth character often seen in the late 1980’s alternative scene was clearly represented in the order of artists that performed that evening. Although Mudhoney were the headlining act, they were the first band to take the stage and there were no opening artists before them. Mudhoney and Meat Puppets share a significant portion of the same audience due to the era they were both the most prominent, but more importantly they share these fanbases because of both artists’ commitment to venturing into unexplored territories during a time where it was so rare to do so. The crowd were certainly a bit older in age than most LA events you see nowadays, with many Gen X’ers in the audience sporting business attire and clearly arriving to the show right after clocking off from work. This age group for the audience provided a lot of freedom in how to arrange the order of bands for the evening, as many in the crowd were showing up early anyways in hopes of not staying out too late. The pre- grunge scene that these bands come from was known for supporting their fellow artists to allow as much growth as possible for these rising genres, so it felt more than appropriate for the headliner Mudhoney to perform first.
Mudhoney kicked off the evening with the bright opening drums of “Into the Drink”, a song featuring cheery and upbeat instrumentals with bleak and dreary vocals, perfectly representing the range of emotions felt in early 90’s alternative music. It would be unfair to call Mudhoney a grunge band, as they encapsulate far too many representations of angst in that period to pin them down to one genre. Their opener was a much more mellow track than most of the set, but it invokes a feeling of apathetic youthful edge that was so prevalent during the grunge era. Its contrast between joyful instrumentals and depressed vocals made it the perfect track to lead the packed house of the Regent into the heavier energy that would be coming soon.
Mudhoney transitioned into a completely different energy with the next track, “Suck You Dry”. The track’s an early noise rock anthem, with the clean and catchy guitar riff being complimented in an overpowering way by the fuzzy sounds of every instrument (including the vocals) behind it. While the track is rough around the edges in sound, it bleeds confidence of sexual energy in a very rock n roll way. The blend of these aesthetics is seen to this day, with bands such as The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand incorporating a rougher garage rock production into the poppy and catchy nature of their songs.
Mudhoney may incorporate loud and abrasive noise into each of their songs, but the emotions conveyed between tracks will vary drastically.
Mudhoney’s vocalist Mark Arm has an incredibly distinct and signature character to his vocal style. He performs lower-toned grunge vocals with breaks of high-pitched screams seen in power metal interchangeably, along with spoken-word type vocals popular in satirical punk of the time period. He effortlessly encapsulates the widest range of vocal styles that alternative music has offered throughout the years and blends them together seamlessly. There’s an incredible emphasis whenever he uses the spoken-word type vocals, due to drummer Dan Peters continuing the steady beat of the track while the other band members quiet down their instruments to near-silence. The combination of vocals and drums being the forefront instruments creates a very beatnik-like atmosphere, shining light on the social themes present in the lyrics during these segments. When Mudhoney really demand you to hear the message in a song, the screaming and noise stop momentarily to bring the entire room to full attention.
The loud personality of Mudhoney that filled the Regent Theatre would quickly switch into a more laid- back atmosphere as soon as Meat Puppets casually took the stage. Meat Puppets gleefully plucked their instruments into the opening track, “Coming Down”, a psychedelic jam-band classic. While most of the band had long grey beards evoking hippie energy like “The Dude” from Big Lebowski, they had an incredibly upbeat and youthful energy that could only be born out of more punk-associated roots. It’s incredible how brave the Meat Puppets were in their incorporation of Grateful Dead influence into their signature style, as being a Dead-Head in the 80’s was a cardinal sin within the aggressive anti-hippie nature of the 80’s punk scene. While bluegrass and folk influences are somewhat commonplace with modern alternative and indie rock artists, this ambitious exploration was nearly unheard of in the divided underground scenes prominent at the time.
Meat Puppets doubled down on this psychedelic and bluegrass influenced sound throughout the set by temporarily breaking into jams throughout each track, and extending them with the solos and embracement of amp feedback that the hippie sound was known for. There were vocal harmonies from every member being layered simultaneously, keyboard slides were perfectly timed by the much younger Ron Stabinsky to bring moments of euphoric spikes, and infectiously dance-y basslines filled each song throughout the night. Meat Puppets are certainly heavier in their guitar tones and drums than most groups that incorporate these sounds, cementing their status as one of the most innovative crossover artists to bring these elements to a more punk-adjacent audience.
The room roared with cheers as soon as drummer Derrick Bostrom softly transitioned into the opening drum break of “Lake of Fire”, one of the last songs of the evening. The track is easily Meat Puppets’ most popular song, mostly due to Nirvana’s cover of the track being included in their iconic MTV Live Unplugged performance. The Meat Puppets version is much heavier, faster, and longer, but they performed the song with a jamming session halfway through that extended the track by almost double the time. While the track may be known more for its lyrics and creeping groovy bassline, it becomes a completely different experience when heard live through these instrumental solos and experimental breaks. With guitar solos much more metal-esque than the rest of the set and spiraling waves of noise mixed in, the song overall felt like a true embodiment of its themes of Hell in a drastic way not heard in the studio mix.
With how many different styles that are now incorporated into modern indie rock and alternative scenes, pioneers like Mudhoney and Meat Puppets deserve more respect than ever before. Without these artists daring to stand up against the norms of rock music in the late 1980’s, the explosion of new innovative sounds and styles to take the world by storm in the 90’s would have never had the platform to prosper. If you have a passion for indie rock, grunge, or fuzz, you owe it to yourself to experience the roots of how punk rock evolved into these scenes and where it all started. Mudhoney and Meat Puppets are two of the best live bands that bring the essence of this pivotal movement in music history to the stage in modern day, and they’re a must-see if you’re a fan of alternative music in any way.