HOBOKEN, N.J. — Back in the early ’80s, in the interim between the first and second acts of the Feelies’ career and at a time when the venerated art-punk band from Haledon, N.J., only performed on holiday weekends once or twice a year, the group’s veteran percussionist, Dave Weckerman, told Jersey Beat fanzine that playing in the band was sort of like living in a mystical pyramid: no one ever got older, and nothing ever changed.
Formed in a leafy suburban of Paterson in the mid-’70s, drawing inspiration from the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers and the Stooges and adding their own unique rhythmic undertow and two-guitar interplay every bit as intense as Television, the Feelies first disbanded (or took a long hiatus, as they prefer) a year or two after the release of their brilliant debut album, “Crazy Rhythms” (1980).
Act two of this most unmercenary of careers began when founding guitarists, vocalists and songwriters Glenn Mercer and Bill Million and their high school chum Weckerman linked up with bassist Brenda Sauter and drummer Stanley Demeski, began to tour the U.S. for the first time at the height of the indie-rock ’80s (including numerous visits to a devoted fanbase in Chicago) then released a more lush and gorgeous second album, “The Good Earth” (1986), co-produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M.
Eventually, the band signed to a major label, A&M, and issued two more strong discs, “Only Life” (1988) and “Time for a Witness” (1991). But, just months before the alternative explosion they predicted and helped inspire, they drifted apart in the wake of commercial indifference, and while the others continued to make music in various combinations or with other groups (Demeski was the longtime drummer in Luna), Million moved to Florida and worked in security at Disney World, going for years without touching his guitar.
Mercer released an excellent solo album last year on Chicago’s Pravda Records label, "Wheels in Motion," featuring contributions from many of his earlier bandmates. But it would never be the Feelies until it was Mercer and Million together once more.
On Monday, Mercer, Million and the rest of the Feelies Mach II took the stage for the first time in 17 years, performing for an invited crowd of friends and family (and, full disclosure, select ticket-winners from “Sound Opinions,” the radio show I co-host with Greg Kot on Chicago Public Radio) at the start of a week that will include two more sold-out shows at Maxwell’s and a triumphant appearance with Sonic Youth at Battery Park on, appropriately enough, the Fourth of July.
Warming up for this long-awaited burst of activity, the band played for more than two hours Monday night, starting gently with jangly material such as “When Company Comes” and “Up on the Roof”; surprising everyone with several strong new tunes; reaching a gleeful climax with “Raised Eyebrows” and the title track of “Crazy Rhythms,” and ending in a joyous explosion that improbably built the intensity even higher with covers by fellow travelers and heroic inspirations Wire (“Outdoor Miner”) and the Velvets (“What Goes On”).
And though Mercer and Million are now 53 and 54 years old, respectively, and Weckerman is 58, the frenetic energy and amphetamized melodicism of the band were as great as they had ever been and it did, indeed, seem as if no one had gotten older and nothing had changed.
With talk of a new recording in the works and more gigs to come (including a promised trip to Chicago; a plan to perform one of the Pitchfork-sponsored Monday lunchtime concerts this summer sadly fell apart), it seems as if the Feelies have ushered in the long-anticipated third act of their consistently fascinating and rewarding story. And the rock world is a better place for it.
Portions of the Feelies' historic first reunion performance will air on "Sound Opinions" along with an interview of the group some time in the next few weeks; watch soundopinions.org for details.
(Photo illustration of the Feelies circa 2008 from the New York Times accompanying an excellent article on the return of the band by Jon Pareles which, for some reason I cannot understand, I am unable to link to. But that's what Google is for, right?)