You know you're dealing with a maverick rock band when one of the group's biggest fans tells you before a show, "I just love their new album. . . . I hope they do something from it tonight." Something from it?

With most bands, you're guaranteed a barrage of material from the new album, because one of the group's main goals onstage is to sell the new record.

The Meat Puppets' audience, however, has learned never to take anything for granted.

This fiercely independent trio delighted adventurous fans last year with "Meat Puppets II," an album whose winsome prairie-punk style was saluted on numerous critics' Top 10 lists. But in concert, the Puppets seemed to delight in confusing those same fans and critics.

Paying scant attention to what was on the record, the Puppets typically turned to whatever musical approach suited their fancy that night, be it spacey psychedelia or a return to the band's early, unintelligible punk.

That left even admirers wondering if the Puppets didn't have a few strings loose. This startling lack of focus and accessibility onstage suggested that the group either had no desire to reach a wider audience or didn't know how to go about it.

The Puppets' new "Up on the Sun" album helps resolve that question. It's a far more focused and consistent work that balances the calming, spacious feel of the Arizona desert with gentle yet probing tales about the search for values and purpose in this age of cynicism and disbelief. The band's live show, too, has become far more satisfying and approachable. And, yes, they did several songs from the new album in a homecoming show at the Mason Jar club here last weekend.

This adds up to a major step forward by a band that had already established itself as one of the most promising members of the New American Underground.

About the new confidence and philosophy, singer-guitarist Curt Kirkwood said, "I think a lot of the confusion about what we were doing was because we hadn't really figured out what we wanted to do or how we related to the audience.

"We went into the studio this time with a new attitude. We didn't want to spell everything out in our music. I like a bit of mystery so that you have to look at it like a puzzle. But we also wanted to strip away some of the chaos. We aren't interested in just being a cult band. I've never been into arty or avant-garde type of music. That's real cold and clinical to me. My heroes were Elvis and the Beatles."

The Mason Jar was so crowded the night of the Meat Puppets' show that it took several minutes to weave your way the length of the 35-foot wooden bar to the dance floor in front of the stage. Could it be that the nationally acclaimed trio was finally being honored in its hometown?

Not exactly.

For many of the 200 people in the room, the Mason Jar is just a favorite date spot. The evening's attraction is almost irrelevant to them--except in terms of the kind of audience it attracts.

"We don't care who is playing here--unless it's a heavy-metal band," explained one regular in his mid-20s. "The heavy-metal audience is too stupid. You never meet any interesting people at those shows. I'm not really into the Puppets' music, but they attract an interesting bunch of fans, everything from brainy college students to punks."

One of Puppets' fans--a 22-year-old who fell closer to the brainy college student category--suggested that the casualness of many in the crowd was typical of Phoenix rock fans.

"A lot of the people who come here don't even listen to the band," Jerry Montgomery said contemptuously. "They just sit in the back and talk unless the group has a big name. If you put the Rolling Stones in here under a different name, most people wouldn't even notice who it was. To them, the Meat Puppets is just some freaky cult group passing through town."

Montgomery may be too hard on local fans. Wherever you go, mainstream audiences think of the Meat Puppets as a freaky cult group.

Formed here five years ago by Curt Kirkwood, his younger brother Cris (bass, backup vocals) and drummer Derrick Bostrom, the trio started as a hard-core thrash band, offering versions of tunes by punk outfits like the Sex Pistols, the Dils and the Damned. Bostrom then started writing songs in that style for the group, which released an album in 1982 on Black Flag's SST Records. The debut LP, "Meat Puppets I," was such an impenetrable wall of noise that it remains a sort of perverse classic.

When writing reins in the band shifted early last year to Curt Kirkwood, the group moved to the softer prairie-punk style that mixed pieces of country sentimentality with its old buzz-saw rhythm. Key songs on "Meat Puppets II" like "Lost (on the Freeway Again)" and "Split Myself in Two" were wry, affecting reflections on alienation.

Still, the production and the playing on the record were far too ragged for mainstream listeners, and even fans of the album threw up their hands over the live show chaos.

"The reason we'd be so unpredictable onstage was that we didn't want to bore people, and the only way we knew how to gauge that was to make sure we weren't bored," said Bostrom, 24. "So we'd go from the country to the ballad to the speed stuff because we would get bored listening to one type of song all the way through."

But that approach has definite limits, a point the band realized during its last U.S. tour.

"One reason we haven't done a better job (of approaching audiences) is that a certain part of me denied it," said Curt Kirkwood, 26, sitting in the living room of the house he shares with his brother. "I've seen the myths about rock stardom and how it traps you and costs you your independence, and I didn't want to get involved in that."

The Kirkwoods' grandfather is a self-made millionaire, but apparently little of the money has filtered down to the brothers, who live--temporarily--in a comfortable if cluttered house in a local suburb. Meat Puppets T-shirts, musical instruments and records were scattered about, but there was little furniture. The Kirkwoods' mother is active in real estate and arranged for them to stay in the house until it is sold.

The brothers attended a Jesuit prep school here, but showed little interest in college. Curt played guitar in a couple of going-nowhere mainstream bands before meeting Bostrom and deciding to follow a more determined and customized musical path. They were so devoted to following their own instincts that they became suspicious of audience acceptance. They even avoided rehearsing until recently because they wanted to be primitive.

"I think we intentionally made everything hard on people (to accept) because we were suspicious that they were listening to us for the wrong reasons," Curt Kirkwood said.

"But we've realized that a lot of them were really interested in what we were doing and that they cared enough to dig through the confusion of our trip to find what it is that pleased them--though some probably liked that sense of chaos."

Over the last few months, the band realized that many of their own early rock favorites--from John Fogerty to Jimi Hendrix--worked hard at improving their musical skills and presentation.

"When we went in to make this album, the challenge was to make the music clearer yet still keep the sense of mystery," Kirkwood continued. "To me, some writers do it all for you, but the best pop music is like participation sport. The listener has to be involved too."

Don't get the idea from the Meat Puppets' new approachability that you're going to hear the music all over the rock radio stations. Despite lovely, guitar-centered instrumental textures, the music is unlikely to make it beyond the open-minded college radio level.

You should also avoid thinking that the Puppets' show has become overly streamlined.

Things started off smoothly at the Mason Jar. Kirkwood even asked for more vocal in his monitor after the first song, suggesting that he's trying to put on a professional presentation. In the old days, he seemed to blare away, oblivious to whether his own guitar was even plugged in.

Through the early part of the set, however, there was a tension in the band's playing, a feeling that the group would careen out of emotional control at any minute. And sure enough, things started heating up about halfway through as Curt Kirkwood began edging toward his early hard-core style.

Before the end, he was jerking about the tiny stage, resembling a man undergoing electro-shock therapy. He knocked over microphones, fell on top of a speaker and nearly smashed his head against some low-hanging light fixtures. The scheduled encore had to be canceled when he spilled a bottle of beer on his amplifier.

While this hyperactivity could be dismissed as foolishness, it provided a strangely appropriate commentary on the restless investigation of the band's themes.

At times, the lyrics--with their frequent references to nature--seem little more than scattered images. But there are moments when they become unusually compelling reflections on the contrast between the steady, orderly plan of nature and the chaos surrounding man.

Near the end of the set, the Puppets moved from their own material to snatches of several songs identified with Elvis Presley, including the swamp-accented "Polk Salad Annie," the snarling "Trouble" and even a sing-along version of "American Trilogy."

Explained Kirkwood later: "We do a lot of Elvis stuff because I realized a couple of years ago that this guy was doing the exact thing we were doing. He was a little more refined because rock (in the '50s) was more refined, but he was totally possessed.

"I listened to his records and read about him and thought, 'My God, this guy was totally Meat Puppet.' He'd get up on stage and do something that was so unique it was like voodoo. That's what we aim for too."

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