Report: The Feelies Live in Northampton

 

May 11 at Pearl Street
in Northampton, Mass., the indie-rock godfathers served up a
rousing 2-set, 2-encore evening o’ fun.

 

By Jennifer Kelly

The Feelies have always had an
uneasy relationship with time. Crazy
Rhythms
, the band’s first album, revved and stuttered with at-the-gate
energy, eager to be off, giddy with a hormonal rush, but palpably blocked and
frustrated. The Good Earth, five
years later, was fluid, languid, circular, its jangling hooks moving forward,
then catching on themselves so that they doubled back. Last year’s post-reunion
album Here Before was even more
serene and rearview oriented, full of admonitions to slow down, take time, see
what happens later on. There is very little “now” in the Feelies’ recorded cannon,
but quite a lot of past and future.

 

That said, they were definitely
“present,” in every sense of the word, at their two-set, two-encore gig in
Northampton this Friday, the band’s two-percussionist line-up (that’s Stan
Demelski on kit and Dave Weckerman on tambourine, maracas, woodblock, cowbell
and general sun-glassed, decadent rock-star ambience) lighting a fire under
even the most placid Feelies tunes. There was nothing elegiac about Glenn
Mercer’s bounding, lunging, windmilling guitar work, either, and even stolid
Bill Millions (“Look at Bill. He looks like a science teacher,” said someone
behind me) got into an antic groove by the end of the first set. There was very
little banter, just an occasional “Thank you,” from long-time bassist Brenda
Sauter, and then the woodblock or tambourine or tom beat would kick in again,
Mercer would execute one of his rubbery, vibrato-filled guitar licks, Millions
would strum a stinging jangle and the band would be off again.

 

“Let’s Go” had just started when
we got to the club, a bit late, its expansive, jangle-pop riff balancing hope
and melancholy on a knife-edge, its rhythmic grounding a bit more muscular than
you might remember from, say, the Squid
and the Whale
soundtrack. The first set is, as far as I can make out,
dominated by the Feelies’ later material. “Here Before” from the post-reunion
album of the same name shimmers with liquid guitar slides. “For Awhile” from
1988’s Only Life,  turns bittersweet as Sauter and Millions lean
up to the mics for harmonies. “On the Roof,” from Good Life, is a Feelies
trademark…a soft song punched hard with drums, maracas and jangly, jagged
guitar riffs. And for “When You Know”, the last song of the first set, Mercer
turns back towards his ancient amp (literally, it seems to be an antique),
squalling out a bit of noise to break up the serenity.

 

There’s a bit of break as the Feelies
guitar tech retunes all the instruments, and I turn around to survey the crowd,
a mix of people old enough to have seen the Feelies at Maxwell’s in their
heyday, one or two actual children, and a smattering of college age kids. Some
of them had graduated from U. Mass. earlier in the day. It’s a nice crowd, prone
to very little shoving and showing a great deal of interest, during the break,
in the well-worn instruments and sound equipment.  I may be projecting, after a hellishly busy,
badly paid week, but it seems that we are all very happy to be there, at the
beginning of the weekend and, perhaps, the beginning of better times…or at
least a break from awful ones.

 

The second set is louder and more
urgent, the doubled-down percussion pushing, like a freight train, towards the
front of the set, Mercer increasingly antic and animated, the songs a bit
faster and much harder. “Nobody Knows,” which sounds fairly serene and detached
on Here Before, snaps to militant
attention on stage, the thunk of woodblock cutting through its interlacing
guitars. “Higher Ground” is nearly blasted to bits by its thundering,
four-handed tom beat, while “Way Down” (another song  from Here
Before
that I could have sworn was fairly quiet on record) pits soft
sustained modal vocals against nervy, sharp-edged licks, while “Time Is Right”
rumbles in on a bass solo and proceeds to obliterate. It is right about at this
time that I start thinking like a 14-year-old: “This is the best band ever.”

 

The first set closes with a trio of
older songs “Moscow Nights,” “Raised Eyebrows” and “Crazy Rhythms,” all
super-charged with percussion. Indeed, the cowbell from “Crazy Rhythms” has
hardly stopped echoing when the crowd begins clapping, stomping, shouting for
an encore. It works, though it takes some time. The crowd gets a stomping,
thumping, eastern-toned cover of “Paint It Black” (as well as one other song I
don’t quite recognize – it might have been a harder, faster version of
something from Mercer’s solo album Wheels
in Motion
. )  It is after the first
encore and before the second that I first begin to realize that I have spent
close to three hours with the Feelies without hearing “Fa Ce La,” but stomp,
stomp, stomp and they’re back. This time, they play the best song off of Crazy Rhythms as if they’d just written
it, as crisp and fast and offhand as if 30 years had never been…yet another of
the Feelies tricks with time.

 

 

 

 

 

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