The Feelies at Maxwell’s
July 16, 2013 | by Josh Lieberman
Minutes before the Feelies take the stage at Maxwell’s for the last time ever, the room is packed tightly enough to induce heart palpitations in a fire marshal.
It’s small, the back room of Maxwell’s, with a capacity of two hundred. From the bar and surrounding area it’s hard to glimpse the stage, even though the room is only about the size of a rural post office. The lucky fans at the foot of the stage must sacrifice drinking privileges, as going to the bar and returning to the front is impossible. The room is hot. No one who’s ever been to Maxwell’s has praised the venue’s air circulation.
In no way is Maxwell’s an ideal place to see a show, except that it is.
The highlight of a Feelies show is often the blistering combo of “Raised Eyebrows” and “Crazy Rhythms.” The booming, oddly-metered bass drumming of “Eyebrows” was inspired by the rapid and arrhythmic explosions of the grand finale of a July 4th fireworks show.
In a few weeks, Maxwell’s, the Hoboken music venue almost always described as “legendary” or “venerated,” will close its doors permanently. Beleaguered by issues municipal and demographic, the club has become too much of a hassle to run, says Todd Abramson, the co-owner and booker. The parking in Hoboken is abysmal; the population is changing.
“It was just time,” says a weary Abramson, who will close Maxwell’s on July 31.
Perhaps no band will miss Maxwell’s more than the Feelies.
The Feelies are practically synonymous with Maxwell’s. The club, which opened in 1978, right around the time the Feelies got going, has played a significant role in the the band’s personal and musical lives. It’s where the Feelies played their annual Fourth of July shows for many years (tonight being the final night of that tradition), where they played countless times as Feelies spin-off bands, where they played their last gig as the Feelies in 1991 and their first gig as the reunited Feelies after a seventeen-year hiatus. Maxwell’s is where Feelies’ guitarist and singer Glenn Mercer met his wife, and where the two had their wedding reception. It’s where the band rehearsed for a number of years, and where they shot their “Away” music video with Jonathan Demme. The first owner of Maxwell’s, Steven Fallon, even released the Feelies’ music on his label, Coyote Records.
“It’s like our little clubhouse,” Feelies percussionist and self-appointed historian Dave Weckerman says of Maxwell’s. “It’s governed our whole lives personally for the past thirty-three years.”
“I don’t know what could replace it,” says rhythm guitarist Bill Million.
The Feelies’ second album, The Good Earth, was released in 1986, six years after Crazy Rhythms. With songs like “Higher Ground” (this version comes from July 4, 2013, at Maxwell’s), their second album had less frantic, nervous energy and was more in the jangly, college rock vein. By the time of The Good Earth, "The musical landscape had changed, and more influences were able to seep in," says Dave Weckerman.
For the uninitiated, here’s a quick primer on the sound of the Feelies, a New Jersey band comprising Glenn Mercer (vocals, guitar), Bill Million (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Brenda Sauter (bass, backing vocals), Stanley Demeski (drums), and Dave Weckerman (percussion): the band of “so-straight-they’re-cool weirdos” (Robert Christgau) makes songs shimmering with “neurotic energy” (the A.V. Club), music that is “jittery, thumping and volatile” (Rolling Stone), “exudes a principled charm” (Trouser Press), and sounds “a lot like a classic band called the Velvet Underground” (Christgau again)—in other words, music perfect for those who like “minimalist, mildly self-absorbed rock groups” (Entertainment Weekly).
Yeah, that doesn’t really tell you anything. Best to try and catch a Feelies show.
“Anybody who ever saw the Feelies at Maxwell’s knows that there’s never been any greater American band … everybody knows that if they’ve experienced them firsthand, especially at Maxwell’s,” says Jonathan Demme, who directed their 1988 music video for “Away.” Demme wanted to make a movie about the Feelies, which he described as Night of the Living Dead meets The Last Waltz, but he couldn’t find investors for a movie about an obscure New Jersey band who wrote songs like “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness.” Instead, Demme made Stop Making Sense.
In the back room of Maxwell’s, where the stage rises only a few feet above the main floor, stand the Feelies superfans. They’ve been hanging around Maxwell’s for hours. Or, more accurately, for years.
Take Paul Anderson, who’s been seeing the Feelies at Maxwell’s since the mid-1980s. Anderson stands squarely in front of the stage, puffing an e-cigarette, and you get the feeling that if a fire broke out while the Feelies were playing, Anderson would risk staying.
Anderson even wangled his way into the first Feelies reunion concert in 2008, a friends-and-family show.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says Anderson. “It was just like everybody was just so overwhelmed and happy. It was a great feeling in this room then.”
Over there by the merch table is the creator of the de facto official Feelies Web site, Night of the Living Feelies. Massimo de Vecchi lives in Brussels. He is affable, laid-back, and extraordinarily sane for someone who flew from Europe to New Jersey just to see a band. This isn’t even the first time de Vecchi has come to America to see the Feelies. He’s flown to see them in Boston, DC, Philadelphia. De Vecchi is apparently unable to find a more geographically-appropriate band for to follow.
“Like when you fall in love, you cannot choose,” says de Vecchi. “It happens.”
Here Before, released three years after the Feelies reunion in 2008, marked the band’s first new material in twenty years. It’s a largely mellow affair, with the band sounding their prettiest on the album’s final song, “So Far.”
Without fanfare, the show begins.
The Feelies start with “When Company Comes,” from their 1986 album The Good Earth, “Bluer Skies” from 2011’s Here Before, and a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves The Sun.”
They sound great, of course, because here’s the thing about the Feelies: they’re a remarkably consistent band. They seem incapable of performing their music badly. This isn’t to overpraise them, or claim that they are the greatest band in the world; it is to say that they have their sound down so well, and play their stuff so tightly, that it would be hard to point to a Feelies show as better than the previous night’s, except maybe in terms of song selection, which doesn’t vary that greatly anyway.
So yes, their playing tonight is excellent. Over the course of almost four hours, they offer up the propulsive frenzy of their first album, the mellower and more textured soundscapes of their later albums, the back-porch serenity of songs like 2011’s “So Far,” and plenty of the searing, soaring interplay between Mercer’s lead guitar and Million’s rhythm, which is the key to so much of their music. The band throws in a couple of their usual covers, like the Stones’ “Paint it Black” and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” as well as the Beatles’ crowd-pleasing “Ticket to Ride” and Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” one of the covers they do best, sung by bassist Brenda Sauter.
In between sets, Domenick Stampone, the mayor of Haledon, New Jersey, the Feelies’ hometown, takes the stage to introduce the band.
“I’m actually here on a bit of diplomatic mission,” says Stampone. “If Hoboken will not have you, or doesn’t want you, Maxwell’s, you can always set up shop in Haledon—we’re about fifteen miles west of here. Bill wanted me to read the Gettysburg Address. Instead I’m introducing a band that—for me at least—was, is, and always will be Haledon’s own. Please welcome the Feelies.”
It’s the most talking that occurs on stage all night. The Feelies are not much for banter. (“I don’t talk much ’cause it gets in the way,” goes a lyric from “Crazy Rhythms,” and on stage that seems to be a guiding principle.) Playing the last night at a cherished venue might inspire some sentimental speech or an acknowledgement, but with the Feelies you get none of that.
Maybe a very little bit. Glenn Mercer does introduce one song by saying, “This song is dedicated to tonight.” The comment elicits scattered aws from the crowd, something that isn’t often heard at a Feelies show.
During one of the many encores, the Feelies reveal a bit of a hidden gift for stage banter when an unannounced special guest takes the stage: a cockroach.
“Only at Maxwell’s would there be a cockroach crawling across the stage,” says Million.
“The owners and the bands come and go, but the roaches stay,” says Mercer.
But the best quip goes to Andy Peters, the Feelies’ longtime soundman.
“We are never playing here again,” says Peters.
No one can top that, and no one tries.