“Special guests” are promised for The Feelies’ Friday and Saturday night 40th anniversary celebration concerts at Rent Party in Maplewood. But Glenn Mercer isn’t saying who they are.
He does say, though, that “we want to do something a little bit different” from a normal Feelies show, and that “the whole structure of the night will be a little bit different.” The concerts, which are sold out, will raise money to help fight hunger in the local community, as all Rent Party shows do.
Mercer has performed at shows in the Rent Party series before, with the bands The Trypes and Yung Wu, but this will be his first performance at the venue’s current home — The Woodland, the former home of the Maplewood Women’s Club.
“My main consideration was, we wanted to have a place where we had a room to have all our friends come, and make it more like a party,” Mercer says. “An event like this could go by, and you didn’t really get a chance to reminisce with a lot of the people you haven’t seen in a long time. So I wanted to make sure that they had a room big enough for a dressing room where we could really make it more like a party.”
The band — featuring Mercer and Bill Million on guitar and vocals, Brenda Sauter on bass, Stan Demeski on drums and Dave Weckerman on percussion — has long been regarded as one of New Jersey’s leading contributions to the alternative-rock world, as well as an explosive live act. Though the five get together only occasionally for gigs and recording projects these days — Million lives in Florida and Sauter in Pennsylvania, so logistics can get complicated — they did release their first album in 20 years, Here Before, in 2011, on the Hoboken-based Bar/None label, and are currently working on another one, with plans to release it later this year.
“We decided to try to take a new approach, and that would be to work at my house, to duplicate the environment that the demos were made in,” says Mercer, who lives in North Haledon. “It was off the clock: We weren’t playing by the hour. Everything was really relaxed for us. We also wound up incorporating parts of the demo in the album.
“It’s a little bit more … we don’t like to use the word experimental, but it covers a lot of ground, I’d say.”
The band re-released its third and fourth albums, Only Life (1988) and Time for a Witness (1991), in March, on Bar/None. They both originally came out on A&M, following two albums, Crazy Rhythms (1980) and The Good Earth (1986), on smaller labels (Stiff and Coyote, respectively.
The band still performs a lot of the Only Life and Time for a Witness material at its shows. “To me, the bottom line is the song,” says Mercer. “If you connect with the songs, that transcends the actual album: The song exists above and beyond a particular recorded version of it.
“We were going through some rough times when we did Time for a Witness. Only Life was a good time, but the production on that … we took a little bit more of a back seat. It was our first sort of quote-unquote major label, even though A&M weren’t really a major label at that point. We kind of made a little bit of a concession to give the co-producer (Steve Rinkoff) a bit more involvement than we normally do.”
It was an era during which a lot of alternative bands were getting signed to big labels.
“I think that was in the back of everybody’s minds: to take us to another level,” says Mercer. “I’m just talking generally about a lot of bands that are peers of ours: They signed to the major labels and they broke up soon afterwards. To me it kind of reflects the whole way of thinking that this can be bigger than it is, rather than to be satisfied with the way things were. Not only the bands, but the record labels all had high hopes for the bands, and it wasn’t really an accurate way to look at the whole … rather than just, to make good music, it was, ‘How far can we take this?’ It became more about the commerce than the whole artistic aspect for us. And it carried through with us with Time for a Witness … the economics of the situation got a little crazy.”
“We had formed a relationship with a lot of people at A&M. It was a good relationship, and we felt comfortable working with them. But then they got bought out. Most of those people left, and new people came in. They didn’t know the band. They weren’t familiar with the way we work. They made certain demands on the band. To get to that next level we had to have more people on our crew, so there were as many people on our crew as there were in the band. It just became harder and harder to make money at it. We were doing more work and getting less money. It wasn’t a comfortable situation.”
Nowadays, with the band presenting only occasional concerts, there’s no question that every show feels special — both for the band’s fans and the musicians themselves.
“When we do it, we’re always really excited about it,” says Mercer. “When we’re done, we’re very worn out.”
The days of long, grueling tours are over.
“It always feels like a big accomplishment just to do it for a weekend,” Mercer says.
Both Rent Party shows are sold out. Visit rentpartylive.com for information.
The Feelies will also present a free show at Central Park Summerstage on July 18; visit cityparksfoundation.org.