It’s not often that the band gets back together, but when they do, they give you more than your money’s worth in guitars and good feelings.
9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.
Formed in Haledon, New Jersey in 1976, The Feelies have earned the right to pace themselves. Two years ago at the 9:30 Club, the veteran guitar band played a whopping 37 songs; last Friday night, partly due to equipment issues that intermittently dogged several encores, they only managed 36. But that still left you with two and a half hours of one of the great ‘80s bands amiably delivering a reliable back catalog and a selection of typically personal covers.
Like the last time they played town, there was no opening band. The night started with “When Company Comes,” which was a breather between rave-ups on The Good Earth in 1986; more than 30 years later, it’s a warm up for the twin guitars of Glenn Mercer and Bill Million.
The group’s sound was forged by the gentler side of the Velvet Underground as heard on “What Goes On” (covered on Only Life). On their 1980 debut Crazy Rhythms, the band’s image was that of nerdy neurosis driven by furious art-rock guitars. But by the time of their belated sophomore release, those guitars had settled into something more organic, something that suggested R.E.M. (on an album produced by Peter Buck). The group sustained that second-act sound through four albums in its original incarnation and, after a 2008 reunion, two subsequent albums, and that’s the game they bring on their now intermittent East Coast tours.
Even in that kinder, gentler tone, you can hear the rhythms of “Sister Ray” in this pastoral setting, but instead of lyrics about junkies you get level-headed advice about taking it easy. The agitated lyrics of such debut tracks as “The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness” evolved into the laid-back Zen of “So Far” and, well, Only Life.
By the end of a first set that moved through material from their two reunion albums, they started moving backwards, and, if they are now a little grey and a little less animated, the years started to slip away. From “Been Replaced,” off the 2017 In Between, to a pair of tracks from the 2011 Here Before, and ending with the debut’s “Original Love,” the Feelies began to operate as if in a time machine, growing more propulsive as the night went on.
A livelier second set again counted down to a backwards-looking climax from the 1988 track “Too Far Gone” and closing with the last two tracks from their debut. If the band’s sound was overhauled between their first two albums, in concert the sound is seamless. So twitchy in studio, “Raised Eyebrows,” with augmented live percussion, is a more percussive rave-up. Percussionist Dave Weckerman (leader of the side project Yung Wu) and steadfast Stan Demeski hold down the basic beats, but even bassist Brenda Sauter joined on tom-tom.
Notably missing from the set was the signature jam “Slipping (Into Something),” and the band’s encores seemed to have been cut short. Still, Bill Million saved his best solo of the night for a blistering encore of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” a thematic mirror to the Velvets’ “Rock and Roll.”
Unfortunately, Mercer had amplification issues and we missed his lead on “I Can’t Stand It.” After Sauter apologized for equipment problems, the night ended on the atypical lullaby “So Far,” Weckerman leading the sleepy-time number with chimes. The very next night, the Feelies gave its next audience in Carrboro, North Carolina a whole 40 songs. With its members flung further afield, it’s not often that the band gets back together, but when they do, they give you more than your money’s worth in guitars and good feelings.