Village Voice — August 15, 2012
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Maura Johnston

Havin’ a Party

Kenny Chesney throws a summer blowout at MetLife Stadium

Beach balls are a common sight at outdoor concerts these days, their candy-colored signaling of summertime fun serving as a way to distract those patrons who might be too attentiondeficient or aesthetically displeased to focus on the onstage goings-on. But Saturday was the first time I’d seen airborne beach balls—plural—outside the gates of a concert, batted around by throngs of people drinking beer, sporting cowboy hats, and waiting to get past security underneath the scorching mid-August sun.

We were at MetLife Stadium for the local stop of the Brothers of the Sun tour, starring chronicler of the down-home good life Kenny Chesney and country juggernaut Tim McGraw as the titular siblings. (Spunky VH1-beloved spitfire Grace Potter and brocountry singer Jake Owen were also on the bill.) And for many of the people crowding through the football stadium’s gates, the show itself was only part of the draw; the revelry had started out in the parking lot, and as Chesney would approvingly note later that day, some of the people waiting to get inside the stadium at 4:15 p.m. had been waiting to get inside the lot for grilling, beers, games of the beanbag game “cornhole,” and general camaraderie at 9:30 that morning.

Partying, particularly in the summer, can be a full day’s work. No artist who has come up in recent years embodies this aesthetic better than Kenny Chesney; even Drake, who brought the acronym YOLO (“you only live once”) to many licensed Tshirts and hashtags, looks like a party piker next to Saturday night’s headliner. Chesney sings of time spent by the sea and happy hours; his tan is the bronze hue that implies lots of long days where “work” amounts to little more than applying SPF 8 and turning over every 45 minutes or so; early on in the night, he busted out “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems,” and that song’s Señor Frog’s–ready charm glowed over even those tracks that were slightly less hedonistic. (There weren’t many of those, though.)

Chesney’s easy, breezy attitude, and the party atmosphere of his live shows, have garnered him comparisons to Jimmy Buffett; Saturday’s set paired AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” with shots of beaches around the world, and not even his set’s 8:40 p.m. start time or the skulls on his sweat-drenched T-shirt could dim the ensuing sun-drenched charm. (Dude could show many a chillwaver how a musician can drown himself in beachy imagery while not making songs that sound like they’ve been rendered absolutely soggy.)

That Chesney can pull off so many songs about doing a whole lot of nothing, though, is a testament to his relatability; he doesn’t come off smarmy like the licensing-happy Buffett, or the increasingly noxious Drake, or like the endlessly frat-partying rock bands who think that adding tinges of reggae to their music signifies their laid-backness. This might be a result of him operating in the country sphere, even though not all of his songs have the twang turned that far up. The shows in that genre I’ve attended, from Miranda Lambert’s arena gigs to Dierks Bentley’s in-the-round gig at Long Island’s former Westbury Music Fair, have all had at least one point—and sometimes more than one point—in which the artist thanks the assembled not just for coming to the show and singing along with the hits, but also for spending money on the ticket. Chesney thanked the audience profusely, as did McGraw. Of course, the people being shown gratitude had helped the headliners get into the record-industry record books—paid attendance for Saturday’s show was 56,285, breaking the record for biggest country show in the New York metropolitan area, set by last year’s Chesney show in the same stadium.

But Chesney’s relatability extends to his music, as well. Saturday night’s atmosphere was that of a party—how could it not be when after the first song, he ziplined from the middle of the stadium’s field level to the stage, a camera tracking his journey— but there were a couple of moments that resembled real talk at the bar or after its last call. “Come Over” is the No. 1 record on country radio right now, and it operates in the late-night drunk-dial idiom of Lady Antebellum’s adult-contemporary monster “Need You Now,” from its strummed lilt to its politely urgent loneliness. “I told you I wouldn’t call, I told you I wouldn’t care/But baby climbing the walls gets me nowhere,” Chesney sings right before uttering the invitation in the title. He explained this song by saying it was “about holding onto all that was good, basically the only thing that was good, and letting go of all the rest”—which might be one of the most mild-mannered utterances about the thrilling nature of breakup sex ever to be uttered, in public or in private. “You and Tequila,” which he performed as a duet with Potter, could be something of a prelude to that track (though it came later in the set); the chorus, which both of them sing, goes “you and tequila make me crazy,” with both the alcohol content of the spirit and the increasingly rancid nature of the relationship at hand being likened to poison. (It’s a fairly jaunty-sounding song, given its subject matter, and the chemistry between Chesney and Potter made the relationship seem more like one that would be depicted on a multicamera sitcom from the ’60s than anything resulting in car crashes or pain.)

The night ended with an encore featuring all four of the day’s performers. Mc- Graw came out first for three songs, including the goofily triumphant downhome anthem “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” with Owen and Potter joining in for an extended version of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.” In case you think that its title was supposed to serve as a metaphor for the performers’ collective energy being spent, though, know that this version of the song was a super-extended jam session with a breakdown where the day’s four stars high-fived audience members and autographed proffered items—even as some in the crowd streamed for the exits, hoping to beat the traffic out of the parking lot. After all, every party host worth his salt knows that even the most superlative soiree- throwing skills are nothing if guests don’t show up and have a good time.

Weasel Nation

The daringly avant label ugEXPLODE


In 1991, improvising percussionistabout- town Weasel Walter launched ugEXPLODE. Then based in Chicago, the label documented his projects like “brutal prog” ensemble the Flying Luttenbachers and his intrepid foray into experimentalism with his myriad collaborators. But since then, the now- Brooklyn-based ugEXPLODE has taken on a roster of maverick musicians from all over the country. From the radical guitarists Ava Mendoza (Oakland, California), Sandy Ewen (Houston), and Mary Halvorson (Brooklyn) to chamber-rock terrorizers Normal Love, Pittsburgh noise-rock duo Microwaves, and electronic composer David Earl Buddin, Walter has amassed a stable of avant-gardists to die for.

Mastering releases, drumming in improv collabs, and serving as guitar overlord in Cellular Chaos, he remains immersed in the action. During a recent set at Long Island City’s Uncanny Valley, that no-wavedecimating nihilist quartet (rounded out by drummer Marc Edwards, bassist Ceci Moss, and vocalist Admiral Grey) incited a sonic riot: Walter, flailing and sweatsoaked, rattled off huge, hyper-distorto licks while the tie-dyed-out Edwards bashed living hell from his drum kit. Meanwhile, Moss squirmed on the floor and bled thunderous noise from her bass. A Bay Area transplant whose roommate was bandmates with Walter in noise meisters XBXRX, she moved east in the mid-aughts. Walter followed suit shortly thereafter, and Cellular Chaos soon took shape as a trio.

Edwards soon joined permanently, yet the group needed a singer. “We really wanted vocals, and I was singing since the beginning,” explains Moss. “But the thing is, it’s really hard for me to play bass [and] sing at the same time and entertain. It’s hard to try to concentrate on those two things. I can still roll on the floor if the part of the song is really simple, and I don’t have to focus on bass as much. But sometimes, I do have to focus on what I’m doing. We really wanted a lead singer and tried out a bunch of people. We also wanted another girl in the band.”

Enter Admiral Grey, a leotard-wearing, makeup-smeared, whooping provocateur. “I was missing heavy music, and my drummer from my old band started the Ladies of Experimental Music NYC Facebook page after a conversation we had,” Grey says. “People would just find us, and we’d add anyone in experimental music—and not always ladies. So Weasel ended up joining that group and posted about needing a vocalist, [writing]: ‘What the fuck? Why can’t we find a cool vocalist?’ My initial thought [upon reading Weasel’s post] was probably, ‘Well, your music probably sucks.’”

It didn’t. “Weasel and I were just in totally different spheres, different scenes,” Grey explains. “We have a million friends in common, but for some reason, never heard of each other. Just different worlds totally.”

Walter is no stranger to colliding worlds resulting in visionary music. His reach extends to the thriving experimentalist city of Houston, where bassist Damon Smith recently moved and where guitarist Sandy Ewen is an omnipresent force. Ewen’s singular method of playing—her ax flat on her lap, dragging raw sonics from her six-string using random items found on the street— went well with Walter’s brisk percussive clangs and crashes and Smith’s beefy phraseology, as evidenced by this year’s Ewen/Smith/Walter (ugEXPLODE).

“Friends know that I look for these things, and if they find cool pieces of metal, they’ll save it for me,” Ewen says of her found sounds. “If you’re improvising with people, you have to improvise ways to make cool sounds and fit into stuff. So it just seemed natural to raid the closet. One of the main techniques that I discovered was playing the guitar with sidewalk chalk. So I figured that out just because I had some one day, and I tried it on a guitar. It sounds really cool, like an Ebow. It sounds like a rusty piece of metal, but it works way better. It’s like the ultimate rusty piece of metal.”

Survival Tricks (ugEXPLODE/ Public Eyesore), the massive second LP by the Brooklyn/Philly art-rock quartet Normal Love, weeds its way through the chaotic orchestral-damaged percolations of shrieking alien vocals, amplified violin skronk ’n’ scratch, delirious stop-start clangor, gnarly and futuristic electronics trashing, and disemboweled-guitarstring fuckery. “The amplified-violin sound I bring to Normal Love is actually an extension of some solo work I began creating in 2009 for violin and delay, which in part explores using the violin percussively and texturally,” Anthony Braxton disciple Jessica Pavone explains via e-mail. “It was a great coincidence that a year later, I was asked to join this band. Kind of a perfect sonic fit.”

Pavone also works with Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose abrasive, conversational beauty with Walter is in full throttle on 2008’s Opulence (ugEXPLODE) and 2011’s Electric Fruit (Thirsty Ear). (The two are accompanied by ace trumpeter Peter Evans.) “Weasel is a unique musician, and his playing always pushes me in new directions,” Halvorson says. “He is an amazing listener and a great propeller of energy. He manages to be completely manic and extraordinarily sensitive at the same time, which is no easy feat.”

Whether people are citing his tendencies toward being a manic and sensitive improviser, “secretly rock and roll all the way” (as Admiral Grey puts it), or a consistent damner of music and the business, the shared sentiment is “Weasel just puts out music he likes.” Which is why he demurs when he’s asked about the overblown topic of “Women in Experimental Music.”

“I never implicitly thought of ugEX as a pro-female label, but I guess it is in a way. I am certainly interested in nonwhite-male perspectives in experimental music. I think it’s crucial,” Walter said in response to an email I sent proposing this article’s original, loosely based, concept: “ugEXPLODE’s iconoclastic female-musician movement.”

Walter’s bandmate in QUOK, Oakland’s avant-jazz virtuoso Ava Mendoza, had a slightly more humorous take: “It sounds like we had picket signs or something— Let us on the brutal, weird music label. We’re equal!

“My sense is that the new influx of women on ugEXPLODE isn’t because of an idealistic shift or anything on Weasel’s part. It’s just a continuation of what he’d already been up to. Women!”