LIVE: The Feelies @ BSP Lounge, 4/24/15
Review by Ross Marvin
Photographs by Kirsten Ferguson
There’s this stereotype of music nerds that we horde away our favorite music, arrogantly holding the knowledge of secret unknown bands over the unenlightened, the ignorant, the square. I’ll confess to the fact that I probably am a rock snob, but I’m not a selfish snob. One of my great joys is sharing the music I love with as many people as possible. And while the art of the mix tape may be beyond its half-life here in 2015, introducing my friends to a fantastic live band like the Feelies is always an exercise in altruistic pleasure.
This time, my old college roommates met me at the BSP Lounge in Kingston, driving up from Brooklyn for the sold-out show. Neither of them had heard of the Feelies, and when they asked me what to expect, I simply told them to trust me — it would be the best $20 show they would see all year.
They looked at me cross-eyed when the band took the stage. There was lead guitarist Glenn Mercer with his long skinny face and Dylan shades; rhythm guitarist Bill Million in his pleated khakis; bassist Brenda Sauter with her muted “thank you” at the microphone; and percussionists Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman, looking more like they were heading to the university chemistry lab than the stage. It was hard for my buddies to figure out what they were in for. They started downing the $3 PBR cans at an alarming rate. I’d dragged these guys to some pretty strange scenes before, nights where I take in strange avant-garde sounds while they awkwardly count minutes until the after-party and self-medicate until they get there.
But an evening with the Feelies is close to a sure thing. It wasn’t my first rodeo. You see, the Feelies might be the best post-modern rock band, which is probably why they appeal so directly to an English teacher like me, who is always analyzing everything. And to anyone who hasn’t seen the band, there is an astronomical amount of stuff to ponder as you watch the band and listen to their music, which spans four albums and nearly 40 years.
Here’s what my friends and I concluded after the show:
1) The band’s look is both deceptive and a deeply accurate depiction of what the band represents — especially the Feelies of 2015, a band filled with people who are old enough to be somebody’s grandparent.
Deceptive because mere minutes after my friends began to judge what the band looked like, the band launched into a brand of rock and roll that is undoubtedly urban and hip. Churning, dueling rhythm guitars; overdriven, but tasteful leads; metronomic punk drumming with a heavy snare downbeat; lots of tambourine and wood block; melodic bass lines that often masquerade as lyrics while the monotone, Lou Reed-style vocals are undoubtedly more rhythmic. This is the stuff of leather jackets, Lower Manhattan, CBGBs and informed record store clerks. It’s music for the young. It isn’t for arm-chair professors who sip cognac — it’s for the people drinking $3 PBRs in the stuffy hot confines of the BSP Lounge.
But what people often miss about the Feelies is that they aren’t really this New York City thing at all. They’re from New Jersey. And while they are (and will forever be) linked to the Hoboken sound and Maxwell’s (may it rest in peace), they are from the suburbs, and thus they are like so many suburban bands before them a GARAGE BAND. They play short songs, some of them, like “On and On” come at you like two-chord chants. My college roommate leaned in to me after that one and said, “Man, I love how short the songs and solos are. Really keeps it moving.” Damn straight.
2) The look of the band and the stage presence isn’t an act.
Critics always say that the members of the band come across as awkward, but really they just come across as well-adjusted, normal people instead of douche-bag rock poseurs. They rarely say anything between songs, except for Brenda, who whispers “thank you” every once in awhile. Glenn Mercer wears sunglasses in a dark bar so he doesn’t have to look at anyone. Bill Million just looks over everybody, and his background vocals can rarely be heard. Perpetual nervousness persists. In an era of myriad “shoegaze” bands who turn shyness into a commodity, the Feelies resonate with sincerity.
It was refreshing to see how humble the band was after they nearly tore the roof off the club with the incendiary “Slipping into Something,” which – along with the instrumental “Raised Eyebrows,” and encores “Crazy Rhythms” and “Fa Ce La” – made my list of SportsCenter highlights at BSP. The stark contrast between the brutal/beautiful feedback that Bill Million produced at the end of “Slipping” and the deafening silence that occurred right after it became part of the show. It’s as though the humans on stage were mystical alchemists or mere conduits of the music’s power. It poured out of everything electric and then ended suddenly, a transitory transistor leaving the band members silent and vulnerable as the clapping faded into the crowd’s quiet desire for more magic.
3) The Feelies have a definite SOUND. This SOUND transforms them from a typical garage band into an EXCEPTIONAL garage band. This is most notable on their unique ability to breathe life into cover songs.
Let me start by saying that I didn’t think the performance at the BSP was the best Feelies show I had ever seen. It was the first date on the Feelies now-annual spring tour, and first shows are never tight. My favorite Feelies song “Away” from my favorite Feelies album Only Life seemed a bit sloppy, and the sound in the club had Mercer’s guitar so high in the mix that it was sometimes hard to hear Million’s rhythm playing and the vocals. Still, it didn’t take long for my friends to catch on to the Feelies sound, which like many of their contradictions is both derivative and original.
Like everyone else who first hears the Feelies, my friend Dan whispered to me after the second song of the night (new track “Pass the Time,” which opened with interwoven guitar lines reminiscent of “Slipping into Something” but then progressed into more bucolic territory): “Hey, these guys sound like the Velvet Underground.” Basically, as he was saying this, the band tore into “Who Loves the Sun” from the Velvet’s Loaded. The band wears its influences on its sleeve. Covers of Velvets, Bob Dylan, Doors, Jonathan Richman, Rolling Stones, Wire, Television, R.E.M – all in one night. If this doesn’t read like a list of your favorite groups, then you are listening to the wrong shit.
But these weren’t merely bar band covers. The songs were “felt up” so to speak. The typical Feelies cover is slightly sped up, slightly more anxious, slightly less about the lyrics and more about the rhythm. On the covers, Dave Weckerman—percussionist extraordinaire became more evident, whether it was the tambourine or the wood block or an extra snare drum, he took classic rock songs from the canon and punked them up. For a long time, a bootleg of Feelies covers has been traded in record stores and on the Internet. Go find it.
One last thought on the cover tunes — renditions of “See No Evil” and “Outdoor Miner” were two major highlights on the night, both with great choruses that sent Mercer, Million and Sauter to the mics and sent the crowd into hysterics. Both tracks had the idiosyncratic rhythms and post-punk angularity of many Feelies originals from their first album, the legendary Crazy Rhythms. R.E.M.’s “Shaking Through” revealed a jangle pop influence as well. So students, this all showed the Feelies Sound equation to be: 1/3 rhythmic punk; 1/3 jangly college pop; 1/3 sixties rock.
4) The crowd at a Feelies show isn’t homogenous. It never includes people of only one age demographic, and appeals to both men and women.
I contend that based only on their music, the Feelies could have been a very commercially successful band in the 1980s on par with contemporaries R.E.M. However, the personalities of the band members were the limiting factor. All of their business and music moves suggest that making music with neighbors and friends was far more important to the Feelies than touring the world and headlining festivals.
Still, the music is danceable. Forget garage band, the Feelies might be a DANCE band, and this always brings a bunch of women to the front of the stage. The band may not have a heartthrob, but they have a heartbeat that makes up for it.
The crowd at BSP seemed to confirm the wide appeal of the band. It was a literal melting pot: somebody’s middle-aged mother dancing like a hippy; a woman with the tattoo of a noose on the back of her neck visible beneath a 1920’s flapper haircut; a wasted college kid playing air guitar and standing too close to everyone; a lady with big 80s hair that kept blocking my view; a member of the B-52s…(but, no, it wasn’t her beehive); a guy with an Abe Lincoln beard; two blonde girls that looked too young to get in; a raven haired coat check diva; the lead singer of a Pitchfork-reviewed indie band who nodded his head like a young Glenn Mercer must have when he first saw Jonathan Richman; a writer in a leather jacket who wore an earring in one ear; the owners of BOTH of New Paltz’s amazing record stores, which are essentially across the street from one another; an old man with a cane who sat tapping it to Stanley Demeski’s snare cracks.
Everyone knows that half the fun of going to a concert is watching other people. The people-watching is always good with the Feelies. And next time you see the Feelies, I’ll be the guy with the friends tagging along behind me, because I think they caught the bug. Just don’t ask the band about the crowd. I doubt they looked too closely — they’re only in it for the music.
THE FEELIES SET LIST
Pass the Time (New track!)
Who Loves the Sun (Velvet Underground)
Egyptian Reggae (Jonathan Richman)
Change Your Mind
Should Be Gone
The High Road
On the Roof
On and On
The Final Word
Slipping Into Something
Doin’ It Again
Time is Right
Too Far Gone
When You Know
Seven Days (Bob Dylan)
Paint It Black (Rolling Stones)
Shaking Through (R.E.M.)
See No Evil (Television)
Take It as It Comes (the Doors)
Outdoor Miner (Wire)
Fa Cé La