For decades, The Feelies have been known for playing on holidays. Is December 30th a holiday? Not quite; with the New Year’s festivities right around the bend, it just misses the mark. Yet when The Feelies stepped onstage at Ottobar, the crowd was all geared up to celebrate. Many concertgoers were there to see a band they had loyally followed for years—such as one man who noted that he “saw them a lot in the ‘80s” and “usually went to their Boston shows,” but couldn’t resist seeing their Baltimore gig since he was in town. A good number of fans, such as myself, were college kids on break, eager to see one of the most legendary college rock acts in their native East Coast habit. Everyone was feeling the beat that The Feelies delivered.
The band started off smoothly, easily. Instead of opening with a frenetic hit like “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness” (which was interestingly not heard that night), The Feelies played laid-back songs from their most recent albums In Between and Here Before, better suited for head bobbing than chaotic leaping. In the back of the stage were Stan Demeski, who banged on a drum kit, and founding member Dave Weckerman, who could switch between a snare drum, a woodblock, and a pair of maracas faster than you could say “Fa Cé-La.” Up front were Brenda Sauter and steadfast founding members Bill Million and Glenn Mercer, who could pass for professors but go way back with Richard Hell and Lou Reed. Sauter strummed in a grey hoodie with crochet trim, but had vibrant rock energy. Her electric guitar was bright red, and when someone shouted, “You guys are badass,” she fired back, “You’re a badass audience!” Million and Mercer were unmistakable. Put a concert photo next to the Crazy Rhythms cover art, and the similarities will leap out at you—Million’s glasses and faintly bushy hair; Mercer’s long face and intent, knowing songwriter’s expression; both of the guys’ collared shirts. Million was quick-witted; upon hearing, “You sound great live!” from a fan, he replied, “So you’re saying we suck in the studio?”, filling the floor with laughs. Mercer didn’t say much between songs, but at the mic, he never held back. Much of The Feelies’ lyrics come across like dramatic monologues, and Mercer gave every word its weight.
After about an hour of music, The Feelies announced that they would come back after a break. When they returned, they did so vigorously. No longer did Mercer remain fixed in position; he spun around with his guitar, playing with fervor. Here, we heard some more songs from In Between—including “Gone, Gone, Gone,” whose somber beauty sounded even better live. Then the encore madness began. The Feelies have been said to return for encore after encore—and the legend was proven true. During the first of the night, the band played some Crazy Rhythms hits, most notably the standout track “Loveless Love.” What to draw attention to? The harmonies? The intricate weaving of guitars and percussion? The dynamic changes? All of it was perfect.
Throughout the night, I had been wondering whether The Feelies would play one of their famous covers. “Paint it Black” was a Crazy Rhythms bonus track; would they rehash that one, an old favorite of mine, or unveil something different? The question was answered when Sauter sang an intense cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.” Then, during yet another encore, the band played the Modern Lovers’ “Astral Plane,” which resonated well with the disco ball hanging over the venue—but wait, that wasn’t it. Three gritty guitar notes rang out, followed by a riff I knew. It was “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the Stooges’ signature song, and everyone in the room had realized it at the same time as me. The band played it faster than Iggy did, and the crowd reacted accordingly, ending the night with an unprecedented burst of jumps and screams. When we shouted, “Well, come on!” we had just as much energy as you would expect from a tiny, packed club in 1969 or 1989. That’s the allure of a classic—and that’s the allure of a classic band like The Feelies. If we have to wait another six years for a new Feelies album, that’s not too rough—as long as they keep playing, resurrecting these great songs’ spirits on the road.