Micah Nelson The Particle Kid at the Belly Up in Aspen (Feb. 23, 2019)

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by:  Andrew Travers

Particle Kid builds beautiful things only to destroy them.

The experimental rock band is the brainchild of J. Micah Nelson (yes, son to Willie Nelson) who brought the project to Belly Up Aspen on Feb. 23 in an opening slot for The Flaming Lips. Playing to a nearly full house of early-arriving, enthusiastic, attentive and heavily costumed Lips fans, Nelson — playing with a drummer and bassist — showcased his strange and inspired vision for the future of guitar rock.

He set the tone at the outset with a jarring dose of extended feedback, emerging from the haze of noise with “Myssus Crow” — from his 2017 album “Everything is Bulls—” — which juxtaposes jangly guitars and sweet bubblegum-pop vocals with harsh and brutal passages of distorted guitar.

If he wanted to, there’s no doubt Nelson, 27, could be writing pop hits and headlining shows with a more slick and commercial sound — he also could be, as evidenced by a handful of intricate guitar solos, campaigning to be his generation’s guitar hero. But clearly he isn’t interested in that with Particle Kid. Instead, the songs that Nelson showcased in this 45-minute set were studies in contrast and subversion.

On “Hollyweird,” from his recent collaborative album with folk-punk rocker Sunny War, he started it as an electric country ballad about Los Angeles, then tore it apart in non-idiomatic bursts of distortion, only to emerge again whistling and singing a sweet pop melody.

By the time Nelson started sweetly singing “I’m in love/I’m in love/I’m in love with the ocean” during the saccharine opening of “The Ocean,” the audience was bracing for it to turn ugly, and it did with a heavy metal burst of bass drum thuds and sludgy guitar.

There’s a playful Frank Zappa spirit in Particle Kid’s arty rock and a refreshing indifference to the pop trends of the moment. His mercurial guitar-based sound, with touches of folk and punches of distortion, is occasionally punctuated with glitchy electronic samples.

Nelson closed his set with the clever and subversive “Everything is Bulls—,” which recaps the history of life on Earth, from the first bit of conscious matter through our 21st century reality of Snapchat and drone bombs and cat videos.

“It’s not as cynical as it sounds off the bat,” he told the crowd beforehand. “It’s actually a healing, cathartic song.”

A kinetic performer, Nelson bounded around the stage — cluttered with the Lips’ gear, balloons and strings of lights — and ended by smashing a mic stand and doing a trust fall into the crowd.

Performing in a paint-spattered jumpsuit, with a mop of dark hair covering his eyes through most of the set, Nelson regularly raised a fist in the air to pump up the crowd and express his gratitude for their attention.

“Never in my wildest, greatest fantasy and dreams did I think I’d get to share this stage with the greatest band in the world: The Flaming Lips,” he told the Aspen crowd.

In a Facebook post before the show, he recalled how the Lips inspired him and led him into psych-rock at age 12, when he stumbled upon the concert DVD “UFOs at the Zoo.”

Nelson has been releasing music as Particle Kid since 2012, beginning with supremely DIY cassette-tape releases. He dropped two albums in 2017 — a self-titled disc along with “Everything is Bulls—” — and last year’s “Particle War” with Sunny War.

His Particle Kid tours are bare-bones affairs — hitting the road to play clubs with no crew — but he’s no stranger to full rock star treatment as a son of Willie Nelson, a member of Neil Young’s touring and studio band and multi-instrumentalist for his brother Lukas Nelson’s roots rock outfit the Promise of the Real (an Aspen favorite, they’re back at Belly Up for a sold-out show March 19).

But what Nelson seems to be after with Particle Kid is artistic freedom. He also is an animator, experimental artist and general visionary weirdo with countless multimedia projects going beyond his musical ventures. Rolling Stone included him among the next generation of visionary artists its “New Classics” series last year.

Whether it’s as Particle Kid or in some other guise, we’re going to be hearing a lot from Micah Nelson in the years to come.

atravers@aspentimes.com

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