Beefy Performance: Meat Excellence draws crowds and cops

How does one grade Meat Excellence?  For some, it’s Grade A for avant garde.  For others, it’s Grade C, as in call the cops— a frequent conclusion to Meat Excellence performances on the Downtown Mall.

Consisting of Jeff Melkerson on shopping cart— yes, shopping cart— and Johnny Fritz on trumpet, trombone, or harmonica, Meat Excellence may strike many viewers as deranged noisemakers. 

“I can understand that what I do is challenging to some people,” says Melkerson, 28. Still, he says, “Meat Excellence is something people need to be exposed to.”

Melkerson and Fritz, 17, met memorably when, after dancing one night at Tokyo Rose, Melkerson discovered that Fritz knew all the lyrics to the songs of the well-known but defunct Charlottesville band the Counselors. Melkerson, the Counselors’ lead singer, had written many of them.

The pair left the nightspot in Fritz’s van, a vehicle covered in Astroturf. The epic evening included pushing the Astroturf van, checking out a bomb-toting neo-Nazi band that played Charlottesville’s fringiest music hall, the Pudhouse, feces on the walls, and drumming until 4am.

Fritz, who also performs locally as Corndog, designed the shopping cart that Melkerson beats with the legs from an ironing board or metal golf clubs, among other innovative percussion sticks.

It’s Meat Excellence’s evocative public performances on the Downtown Mall that forced the duo to deal with issues of art versus commerce versus assault.

“We have been physically attacked,” says Melkerson. But he’s not one to stifle dissenters “as long as they’re not punching us in the face.” 

Meat Excellence has prompted lots of complaints and cost business, says Ty Austin, manager of Hamiltons’ restaurant. “They’re having fun and calling it art,” says Austin.  “To people trying to enjoy their evening, it’s noise.” 

Melkerson counters that restaurants with outside dining are usurping public spaces and quotes conservative radio personality Neal Boortz: “You don’t have the right to not be offended.”

Austin notes that while he hasn’t reported Meat Excellence to the police, he has tried to reason with the performers: “They responded and moved on.”

One of Meat Excellence’s rules is that when the police are called, they stop playing— “another reason our sets are short,” Melkerson adds.

As the weather warms, Meat Exellence is determined not to let the threats of arrest and physical assault stop them from performing. The articulate yet wired-sounding Melkerson, who uses phrases like “Babbit middle-class pastiche of consciousness” and who by day works at “the best job ever” checking out books at the Central Library, wants both fans and detractors to know one thing: “Both Johnny and I are teetotalers. I’ve never done drugs, and it bothers me that people think I’m on Ecstasy.”