The other day I noticed a sticker on my copy of In Between (Bar-None), the recent sixth album by the Feelies, noting the New Jersey band’s 40th anniversary. At most installments of the Pitchfork Music Festival, that would make them unchallenged as the oldest performers, even though the combo took a 17-year hiatus that ended in 2008—but this year their set was momentarily delayed by an encore from an even older artist, George Clinton, whose raggedly celebratory set preceded theirs. Clinton’s circus of a show displayed his characteristic deployment of a much younger crew of singers and dancers to connect with the hip-hop generation, but the Feelies, formed by guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million in 1976, carried on as ever—with the stage presence of five science teachers who’ve been conducting the same experiment over and over for decades.
Young bands often seem meek or invisible when they play one of the festival’s large stages, since they’re not practiced in the art of projecting to thousands of listeners, but the Feelies’ lack of onstage electricity doesn’t come from inexperience—they’re a rare group that cast a spell solely with the power of their music. Mercer occasionally interrupts his studied cool with a hop or a violently strummed flourish, but for the most part the Feelies couldn’t seem to care less how they look. That makes their power all the more thrilling. The group’s 14-song set included a few cuts from the new album, but it spanned their full history—and in their usual fashion, they constructed it strategically, leading with relatively bucolic, gentle, and mildly introspective material before letting momentum take over on songs such as “The Final Word” and “Crazy Rhythms,” which leave the audience almost as exhausted as the band, burned out in a delirious heap.
It’s remarkable when a band can sustain a career with a single approach—in this case, a variation on the strum-heavy guitar sound developed by the Velvet Underground on their third album. Despite some early lineup changes, that’s always been the basic road map for the Feelies. Bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski, and percussionist Dave Weckerman have been with the group since the mid-80s, and together the five-piece have brilliantly demonstrated the endlessly renewable power of repetition, hypnosis, and frenzy. On paper it almost sounds too simple—a matrix of overlapping rhythms, often fast but never tricky, melding into something of inextricable energy and propulsion—but I’ve been seeing the Feelies since a 1985 show at the West End, and every time I’ve caught them they’ve pulled me in till I lose myself in those pulsing patterns. Saturday night was no exception.
Mercer and Million did stumble once or twice—the former mangled a string of notes from a solo in “Let’s Go” that he’s been playing for more than three decades, while the latter got snagged on the manic rhythms of “The Final Word”—but the band were otherwise the usual model of consistency. I didn’t spend much time scanning the audience, but I will admit that many of us were gray-haired enough to compete with Million and Sauter on that front. Maybe the Feelies’ lack of stage flash makes it difficult for them to connect with younger listeners, but it’s hard to wish they’d change when what they do still works so beautifully. In some respects the Feelies parallel electronic club music with the way each song and set sketches out a journey—albeit the same journey at nearly every show, an elemental trip we’ve all experienced many times. But the grain of their sound and their intensely human drive have always been impossible for machines, or for any other band, to replicate.