Red Red Meat @ The Side Door
St. Louis, Missouri

When Red Red Meat quietly took the stage and opened with the coma-paced “Airstream Driver” from the band's latest CD, “There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight,” it set the low-down drone tone for the evening.

The Chicago band, led by guitarist/singer Tim Rutili, kept things sparse and airy on stage while throwing in everything from casual delta blues riffs to perfect feedback intricacies. In the studio, Red Red Meat invite friends over and the collective bangs out dirty atmospherics suitable for a suicide. Mandolins, lap steel, violins and various machines create and fill spaces and the band rides these waves and ebbs until the painful point is made.

Live, the Red Red Meat nucleus had to recreate these scenes without that help. Songs and themes floated over the still crowd, just seconds from falling apart. Rutili's rhythm guitar, slide and feedback merged and overlapped, then would disappear and come back blurting worship to the Big Reverb Nowhere. All the while, drummer Brian Deck and percussionist Ben Massarella set the rootsy pace.

Bedpans, numbing floor toms and a shattered cymbal kept the staggering beat energetic even when Rutili's ragged voice trailed off and Tim Hurley's late-night bass and backing vocals threatened to fall victim to musical apnea.

“Braindead,” from 1994's “Jimmywine Majestic,” was one the band's few jaunts into older material. Electrified, the song lacked the simple, sad melody the album's acoustic version drops in your lap. Same goes for the nervous prayer that “There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight” is in its recorded form — missing the original instrumentation, the song didn't hit the down-home punch it landed so perfectly in the studio.

“Chinese Balls,” though, did scare up a groove that started with the disturbing line, “Dashboard lighter down your back.” “Sulfur” was a beautifully harsh performance with its start and stop riffs and somber organ flourishes. The rest of the solid, low-key set consisted almost entirely of more material from the new album — a collection of good songs about a bad way — sounding sad in the good way that Red Red Meat's strum-it-out honesty delivers so well. The band created a smoky mood for the audience rather than performing for it, and the crowd simply breathed it in. It certainly wasn't an invigorating or healthy set, but it felt just great.

Headliner Jeremy Enigk played his Robyn Hitchcock/John Lennon/Walt Mink/Jesus Christ-inspired drama-rock well enough, but he and his symphonic swat team came off as nice kids full of annoying passion. The band was undoubtedly the tightest act of the night, but adding a string section and a fake British accent didn't make it the best.

Opener Jane Jensen had a few technical difficulties. The band had to start the first song over because she had no guitar signal. Then the second song had no bass. But it turned out that the band simply had no talent and as they limped through a loud set of uninspired dance flotsam, the band's roadie had the only shaking booty in the house.

By The Billy Keaggy | Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 1997i am