photos by Rob Trucks
July 4th, 2008
Even though it was keeping in the band’s tradition of holiday shows, the Feelies’ opening set for Sonic Youth on July 4 showed that the “pride of Haledon” (as WFMU DJ Gaylord Fields introduced them) had mixed feelings about their 17-years-in-the-making reunion.
See, in the late ’70s, the Feelies’ infrequent shows only added to the legend of a band which uniquely revived the spirit of the Velvet Underground and early Eno in the age of new wave—until disappearing in the early ’80s. Even after their mid-’80s reunion, they were gone again some five years later, adding more heft to their curious history. Now on their third coming, ecstatic notices came from a trio of Maxwell’s shows this past week, which were meant as warm-ups for this bigger gig. Expectations had soared: thousands of tickets were snapped up within 10 minutes for the free River to River Festival show when they were offered up weeks ago.
But you didn’t have to look further than Glenn Mercer’s voice to hear the occasional ambivalence during the 11-song, 40 minute set. He seemed unsure, sounding front and center for “On the Roof” but then alternately projected and held back by the second song (“The High Road”) as if he was still negotiating whether he should be in the spotlight or not. By the fourth song (“Let’s Go”), he was still settling on his bearings, where even up close to the mic, he could still sound distant. Later, he would keep varying back and forth between forceful vocals and a distant croon.
This uneasiness translated to the band too. At Maxwell’s, they put oomph into tunes from their second album, The Good Earth; whereas now, the songs reverted back to their pastoral feel, actually appropriate for a balmy summer day. A new song called “Nobody Knows” fit the easy-rockin’ mood well too, sounding like an outtake from that album, with lyrics that aptly reflected uncertainty: “Is it too late… should we wait?” Later on, some of the rave-ups didn’t come across as powerfully as they should have: on “Away,” Mercer’s guitar solos got lost in the open air and overshadowed by Dave Weckerman’s percussion accents.
Part of their discomfort might have been chalked up to the crowd. They were never themselves playing the larger venues that A&M Records pushed them into, back when they were signed on that label in the late 80’s. Now, playing to 7,000 people instead of a cozy crowd of 200 might have been too jarring a leap this soon.
It was only towards the end of the set that the band hit their stride, starting with another new song, “Time Is Right,” a tense, angry rocker which sounded like a Nuggets outtake. They finally hit full-throttle rave-up mode with “Slipping (into something)” as Mercer plunged into “European Son” territory with crazed solos leading up to a crescendo of noise that Sonic Youth surely appreciated. A nice unhinged version of “Raised Eyebrows” immediately segued into “Crazy Rhythms,” which had good tension and drama on its extended middle instrumental section. And then they were done, except for an encore of Wire’s “Outdoor Miner” (with nice harmonies) and “Fa Ce La” (featuring Mercer’s wildest set of solos yet). As great as the last part was, it still was a little frustrating to see them bow out just as they were reminding indie fans why they were drooling over their return.
It’s hard to gainsay the miracle of seeing this mysterious, seminal band back together again. But like poetry readings or jazz quartets, smaller venues still seem to suit them the best so catch ’em there if you can. They’ll feel better about it and so will you.
An Interview with Glenn Mercer