Saturday, March 20, 2010

Feelin’ It

The Feelies at The Middle East, 3/19/10 (Photo by Frank Lauder)

The recently reunited Feelies put on one of the better performances I’ve ever seen at Cambridge’s Middle East club last night. I’ve seen a few dozen shows there over the years, but I can’t remember one as subtly spirited and sonically pleasing as this one.

With The Feelies, it’s all about understated energy. Songs begin with a subtle pulsation, build in intensity and, eventually, explode in a frenetic cavalcade of jangling guitars and rapid-fire percussion – the potent melodies alternately lurking in the background or soaring to the fore throughout.

For me, the New Jersey quintet have always been one of those bands about which I say, “Yeah, I like them; they’re pretty good.” Then I go through a spell of delving into their catalog, or I happen to see them in concert, and I say, “Wow! These guys (and gal) are really something!” In between these revelations, I tend to forget quite how good they are (attributable, perhaps, to the band’s 17-year hiatus from the music scene). Whether they’re playing their own melodic originals or remarkably interesting interpretations of well-selected covers by the likes of The Beatles, Neil Young or The Velvet Underground, they’re a genuine listening pleasure. And they’ve been hugely influential on three decades of melodic garage rock bands.

One of the challenges of The Feelies’ music is that there is a surface-level sameness to their songs. This is a result of their material universally having a distinctive sonic signature (in the same way that early Talking Heads and R.E.M. did) – not to mention a subtlety to their compositions that becomes more apparent only with familiarity. It’s further complicated by their tendency to use lyrical phrases in songs that are actually the titles of other songs of theirs. This makes it a bit more challenging to fully appreciate their catalog. Once you’ve acclimated to this, however, it almost becomes an endearing idiosyncrasy.

Despite the heavy Velvet Underground influence, The Feelies are just as likely to sound like Neil Young on speed. Yet they clearly have their own sound: fast-paced, but always melodic and sometimes even poppy. It has aptly been described as “manic,” “jittery” and “skittish.” Propulsive rhythms and deft embellishments underlie hyper-strummed chords that joust with scorching-yet-melodic leads juxtaposed against Reedian vocals and ebullient harmonies. It’s stunning how much they can make out of just three chords.

Their sonic palette makes sense given that they are peers of seminal art punksters such as Television, Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Subsequently, they’ve also proven to be an obvious influence on early R.E.M., Sonic Youth and others. At times, some similarities to Echo and the Bunnymen and even Big Country and The Wedding Present are evident, too.

While main songwriter Glenn Mercer may not be a great singer, his vocals more than fit the bill for the Velvets-influenced sound, and his lead guitar playing is spot on: highly melodic and somewhat aggressive without ever devolving into six-string wanking. Meanwhile, fellow band leader and rhythm guitarist Bill Million is a perfect foil, building the foundation of the songs with staccato strumming and the well-placed arpeggios. The interplay of percussionist Dave Weckerman and drummer Stanley Demeski is an integral part of what makes The Feelies much more than just another jangly guitar band. Meanwhile, Brenda Sauter adds adept bass accompaniment and vital vocal harmonies.

The Middle East show was billed as “An Evening with The Feelies,” so there was no support act and we got a bigger dose of the band than on the previous two occasions I’ve seen them (October 2008 at The Roxy in Boston and November 1986 at the Felt Forum in New York). Friday night, the first set started out slowly, with the band easing through a few of their slower and mid-tempo originals (highlights being “The High Road”; “On the Roof,” which recalls Reckoning-era R.E.M.; and several catchy, newer, unreleased songs) before finishing with an upbeat version of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues” and The Beatles’ “She Said She Said.” By that point, the crowd was well-primed for more.

After about a 40-minute break, the band sauntered back onto the small stage and launched into a second set that was blistering right from the get go. Beginning with a one-two punch of “Deep Fascination” and “Higher Ground” (both from 1988’s Only Life L.P.), they worked their way through other standout tracks, including the Bunnymen-ish “Waiting,” “Away,” “Slipping (Into Something)” and “Time Is Right,” an impressive as-yet-unreleased song they’ve been performing since reuniting two years ago.

Playing with the intense look of mad scientists, the band’s stage presence is somewhat dour. It’s a good thing they convey such joie vivre through their music, because you’d never know whether or not they were enjoying themselves based on their expressions. They move around enough, often in sudden bursts of action, but their facial countenance is consistently deadpan. Nevertheless, they rip into songs with verve and, at times, abandon.

As the night progressed, Mercer freely cut loose on lead lines, lurching away from the mic stand to engage in crazy melodic runs on his Telecaster, and Million provided the rhythmic foundation with a deft touch. Meanwhile, Weckerman’s steady assault on the woodblock, various shakers and percussive instruments became even more maniacal.

The band wrapped up the second set with “Crazy Rhythms” off their 1980 debut release, but they were far from done. Six encores later – including covers of R.E.M.’s “Boxcars (Carnival of Sorts)” and a surprising rendition of The Door’s “Take It As It Comes,” as well as their own gems “Sooner or Later” and “Fa Cé-La” – they said a final farewell.

Rumor has it that the reunited, re-energized band has a new record in the works. Given the quality of the handful of unreleased songs they’ve been playing live for the last year or two, that’s reason for optimistic anticipation. Indeed, the “Time Is Right” ... now.

COMPLETE SET LIST (35 songs; six encores!)

First Set: When Company Comes / Sunday Morning (Velvet Underground cover) / instrumental / The Undertow / Holding On / Away / Nobody Knows / The High Road / On the Roof / Let’s Go / For Now / Barstool Blues (Neil Young cover) / She Said She Said (Beatles cover)

Second Set: Deep Fascination / Higher Ground / Waiting / The Final Word / Away / Doin’ It Again / Original Love / Slipping (Into Something) / Time Is Right / Too Far Gone / Raised Eyebrows / Crazy Rhythms

Encores: Boxcars (Carnival of Sorts) (R.E.M. cover) / Sooner or Later / Moscow Nights / I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms (Modern Lovers cover) / Take It As It Comes (Doors cover) / Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (Beatles cover) / We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together (Velvet Underground cover) / Fa Cé-La / Outdoor Miner (Wire cover) / Paint It Black (Stones cover)

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And, For Your Added Enjoyment ...

A recent live clip of the reunited band.


  1. Nice review! I've seen them many, many times going back to the mid 80's and this was one of their best shows. They just keep getting better. Minor correction: We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together is a Velvet Underground cover (not Stooges)

  2. Thanks for the comment ... and the correction! Duly addressed. (I think I knew that, but got a brain cramp and confused with "Real Cool Time" on Time for a Witness.) Anyway, I wish that like you I'd seem them more back in the day. I grew up in New Jersey and lived there until the mid '80s, so I could've potentially seen them at one of the infamous Maxwell's gigs.