What Yo La Tengo is to Hanukkah, the Feelies are to Independence Day weekend. It’s become tradition for the New Jersey-based band to set up shop in Hoboken's legendary Maxwell's for a series of marathon sets. Last Friday, they didn’t disappoint, playing over 30 songs in a three-hour set.
Earlier this year, the Feelies released Here Before, their fifth album overall and their first since 1991’s Time For a Witness, and while it received only a quarter of the press that another record by an alternative band from the 1980s did, R.E.M.’s supposed back-to-form album, Collapse Into Now, it’s so much better. And it's exactly what you'd expect it to be.
For as great as they are (and possibly, probably, the reason they’re so great), most of the Feelies’ songs sound really similar. You can hear it now: the jangly guitar strumming from Glenn Mercer, his voice still similar to Jonathan Richman’s, and Bill Million, the almost imperceptible yet much-needed bass lines from Brenda Sauter, and the tribal percussion courtesy of Stanley Demeski and the sunglasses-at-night-wearing Dave Weckerman, the band’s secret weapon. That sums up much of their discography, and it’s all so simple, so seamless, so wonderful.
The new stuff, like “Should Be Gone” (“Is it too late to do it again/Or should we wait, another teb”) and “On and On,” sounded the same as the older, classic material, such as “Higher Ground” and “Deep Fascination.” Even the songs from their masterpiece, 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, their nerviest, most twisting album, have come to resemble the rest of the band’s chiming records; “Fa Cé-La,” in particular, is warmer than the way it was recorded over 30 years ago. Put another way, it’s hard to be surprised by the Feelies, and that’s mutually understood by both band and audience.
Mercer, though, is a wonder to behold. Picture Christian Bale’s mannerisms as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter and you’ve got a good idea of the way he performs (and kind of looks), constantly moving and twitching, leaning up to the microphone on the balls of his toes, leaning back on his heels while playing a solo. Outside of an occasional “thank you,” he, like the rest of the group, rarely interacts with the adoring crowd.
The encores, all three of them, consisted mainly of covers, a Feelies’ specialty, including the Rolling Stones (“Rocks Off” and “Paint It Black”), the Beatles (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and My Monkey”), the Stooges (“I Wanna Be Your Dog”), the Doors (“Take It As It Comes”), and the Modern Lovers. (Earlier in the evening, the band also performed a ferocious version of “Seven Days,” an outtake from Desire-era Bob Dylan, although I really wish they had played “Powderfinger” instead).
These songs, from some of the greatest artists in rock history, were the only indulgence the Feelies allowed themselves. The band is typically so economically entrancing that it’s refreshing to hear them try on a new sound, like the guitar and piano pound of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” yet keeping the song unmistakably Feelies-like (instead of John Cale’s piano, Weckerman, who would also play the woodblock and maracas throughout the night, tapped a metal bar for almost the entirety of the track, never tiring or losing track of the song’s crazy rhythm).
The Feelies reunion, one that will next take them to a free show at Prospect Park Bandshell on July 23, with openers Times New Viking and Real Estate, is one that could, and should, go on for a few more years, as long as the albums are as precise as Here Before and live shows as consistent as this one.
Photos by Nadia Chaudhury.