“There is a timeless quality to the languid head rock of Red Red Meat,” I wrote in the Sun-Times in February 1994, shortly before the release of the band’s second album, “Jimmywine Majestic,” when it seemed poised to be Chicago’s next breakout act at the height of the alternative era.
That description proved prophetic. Over the course of the group’s short but productive career, its albums and live shows always seemed as if they could be emanating from 1966 as well as 1996. And though it never attracted an audience larger than a devoted cult following, that quality remains in 2009: The group’s entrancing mix of psychedelic blues and skewed pop hasn’t aged a bit, as it proved during a reunion show at South by Southwest last March.
How did guitarist-vocalist Tim Rutili, drummer Brian Deck, bassist Tim Hurley and percussionist Ben Massarella come to return to the scene now, given that they’ve all been busy with myriad other projects since the group’s last album for Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, “There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight” (1997)?
The reunited Red Red Meat onstage; Sub Pop Records photo by Jeff Economy.
“Last summer, Sub Pop asked us to play the [label’s 20th] anniversary [show], and at the time, we were putting together the reissue of ‘Bunny Gets Paid’ , so we were like, ‘Well, if we’re going to do this, we might as well play some shows.’ And it turned out to be a lot of fun, so we’ve played six shows in the last year.”
Now, the group is set to play a free show at Millennium Park on Monday [Aug. 24] for a potential crowd 10 times the size of the biggest it ever drew back in the day, when it peaked at selling out Metro. The times, it seems, have finally caught up with the musicians’ unique and otherworldly sounds.
Commercially, Califone, Rutili’s current band, “has done better than Red Red Meat ever really did,” he says. “But all I know is that every once in while, I hear something–like, I have a friend in L.A. who’s a recording engineer, and a couple of times over the past three or four years, he’s said, ‘I have this band in here, and they’re freaking out about your old records!’ I’m like, ‘What? That’s pretty weird.’ But they’re like 21 years old and they’re digging deep and they’re impressed that he’s worked with us before.
“Stuff like that is really strange. I don’t really think about it a lot, but it’s kind of nice that young people still like what we did 15 years ago.”
It’s really no surprise, given that the groups that inspired Red Red Meat–from German art-rockers Can to power-pop progenitors Big Star to the dense and difficult Rolling Stones of “Exile on Main St.”–also had a delayed reaction in terms of acceptance from the rock audience.
“Immediacy in music is really strange,” Rutili says. “There’s some music that’s immediately catchy or immediately engaging that you get sick of, and some records just grow on you. Since I was a kid, my favorite records always have been growers. They could be complicated, but once you get to know them, they’re like your buddies–they’re good friends.”
Of course, there’s also the appeal of the integrity that comes from refusing to compromise your vision. “After ‘Jimmywine,’ we got weird,” Rutili says with a laugh. “The people that stuck with us loved it, and the people who just kind of liked rock music and weren’t as adventurous ran for the hills. We consciously stepped away from that ambition at one point. But it was funny, because as we thought we were finally making good records and sounding like ourselves, people kind of went, ‘You guys are f—ed!'”
The fact that Rutili is as busy as ever with Califone separates the return of Red Red Meat from so many other recent alternative reunions: This is not a project motivated by a quick cash-in or its members’ creative bankruptcy. Califone is set to release its next album, “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” on Oct. 6, and Rutili brags that it’s the best the group has made. It’s certainly the most ambitious: Rutili wrote the songs at the same time as a feature-length screenplay of the same name, and he’s just finishing editing the film, which the band will screen as it performs the music live on a fall tour that includes prestigious theater and museum gigs such as the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The film is “about a woman who lives in the woods, and she’s a psychic,” Rutili says. “She lives in a house full of ghosts, and one day, the ghosts realize they’re trapped, and she has to find a way–even though she doesn’t want them to go–to get them out of the house. Then they start destroying her life.
“I’ve always goofed around with film and made videos, and it seemed like it was really, really time to do this. I just wanted to play a show that was a real show and to give people a story, instead of like, ‘Welcome to the bar; have some drinks while we play some songs.’ I think it’s going to be a really amazing experience for us, and for the audience as well.”
As for Red Red Meat, the reunited members, who are now scattered across the country, have decided that the Millennium Park gig will be their last–at least until they record some new music.
“We’ve talked about what we’d like to do and how we’d like to do it, though I know it’s going to be a couple of years before we can really get into it. But we all feel creatively more vital now than we did back then. That shouldn’t really happen in rock music, I guess, but that’s the way it feels, and we’ve talked about how great it would be to go in fresh and see what we can do with this particular group. There’s something about Brian playing drums and Tim on bass that’s just really special.”
Meanwhile, the group is looking forward to one more romp through its old favorites. “Sometimes, playing old songs is like, ‘Oh man, teenage poetry time!” Rutili says. “But this is like, ‘Wow, this song is still good, and it’s a lot of fun to play!’ If I can go and play and have a good time and not feel stupid with these things coming out of my mouth, then it’s all good.”
Red Red Meat, the Rural Alberta Advantage
6:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 24
Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph