“One time, Lou (Reed) paid us the ultimate compliment. He said — comparing us to the Velvet Underground — we were the only band that got it.” — Bill Million of The Feelies, in 2014
The Feelies had been preparing for their gig at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, Oct. 13 — which included a set made up exclusively of Velvet Underground songs — for their entire career. The Lou Reed-led band has always been cited by Feelies members as their major influence or, at least, one of the main ones.
“We were influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and the MC5. It was very guitar-heavy with minimalist song structures,” The Feelies’ Glenn Mercer told The Bergen Record/NorthJersey.com in 2016.
They’ve covered VU songs, often, over the years. They also opened shows for Reed, and got to play with him briefly, in the ’80s, the same decade that some band members made a few club appearances in a VU cover band called Foggy Notion.
The sold-out White Eagle Hall show was presented in conjunction with “The Velvet Underground Experience,” an exhibition of films, photos, memorabilia and more at 718 Broadway in New York that opened last week and runs through Dec. 30. And it gave The Feelies an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the Velvet Underground songbook than they’ve ever taken before, with 18 numbers, including signature songs such as “Sweet Jane,” “Rock & Roll” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” but also rarely covered material like “I Heard Her Call My Name” and “That’s the Story of My Life.”
The band’s lone female member, bassist Brenda Sauter, got to sing lead on both the sweet, innocent “After Hours” (originally sung by VU drummer Maureen Tucker) and the dark, foreboding “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (originally sung by VU collaborator Nico). One guest, James Mastro, added guitar and vocals to the feverish “I Can’t Stand It”; another, Mastro’s Bongos bandmate Richard Barone, joined The Feelies for the epic set-closer, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”
Back in the ’80s, The Feelies and The Bongos were the two bands that did the most to establish a nationally recognized alt-rock scene in Hoboken. The participation by both Barone and Mastro in this show underscored the point that that scene was, in many ways, built on what the Velvet Underground started in the ’60s. (Mercer, by the way, joined Barone and Mastro for a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” just last week at a benefit for NJArts.net at Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair.)
There were a few missteps, in the course of the evening. The Feelies sounded out of sync at the start of “New Age,” for instance, but quickly pulled themselves together, and nailed it. The biggest reinterpretation, I thought, was a seriously sped up “Run Run Run.”
Lead guitarist Mercer, for the most part, kept his solos terse and dramatic, and as the lead vocalist on most songs, he managed the tricky feat of evoking Reed’s vulnerability, as well as his menace. Wisely, he cut the “You better hit her” line out of “There She Goes Again.”
The rhythm section — Sauter, along with drummer Stan Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman — had no trouble re-creating the driving, hypnotic energy of songs such as “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “What Goes On.”
The Velvet Underground set almost felt like a complete show in its own right, yet the band returned for an equally explosive 13-song set of its own songs, and then three two-song encores that ranged from one more original (“Fa Cé-La”) to covers of songs by The Beatles (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”), The Modern Lovers (“Astral Plane”), Neil Young (“Rockin’ in the Free World,” with Barone returning to the stage), Patti Smith (“Dancing Barefoot,” sung by Sauter) and The Rolling Stones (“Paint It Black”). I thought they might return to the Velvet Underground for one more, final song, but it was not to be.
But still, it felt right. In the hands of a lesser band, the structure of the show might have led to a disjointed evening. But the two sets felt seamless, with the band evoking the essence of a major influence on them, and then showing how that influence played out in their own music. And then the encores capped it with another set of influences that the band has absorbed, and been inspired by: An infinite process, rarely illustrated so well by a single concert.
Here is the setlist
“Who Loves the Sun”
“There She Goes Again”
“What Goes On”
“Head Held High”
“I’m Waiting for the Man”
“White Light/White Heat”
“I Heard Her Call My Name”
“That’s the Story of My Life”
“All Tomorrow’s Parties”
“Rock & Roll”
“We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together”
“Run Run Run”
“I Can’t Stand It” (with James Mastro)
“Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” (with Richard Barone)
“On the Roof”
“The High Road”
“Gone, Gone, Gone”
“The Final Word”
“Slipping (Into Something)”
“Too Far Gone”
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”
“Rockin’ in the Free World” (with Richard Barone)
“Paint It Black”
Here are some videos: