The Feelies may not be the Velvet Underground’s first disciples—Jonathan Richman was there at the inception, tailing the band with the fervor of a Deadhead. But it could be argued that the New Jersey institution, led by Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, is responsible for much of the indie rock that flowed downstream from the Velvets. Crazy Rhythms, the Feelies’ 1980 debut, bristled with a confined nervous energy as the band brought the downtown innovations of the Velvet Underground to the suburbs, an aesthetic that became part of the lingua franca of guitar-pop for the ensuing decades.
The Feelies’ new album, Some Kinda Love: Performing the Music of the Velvet Underground, captures a performance held in conjunction with the touring exhibition “The Velvet Underground Experience” during its New York City run in 2018. Setting up shop at the White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, the Feelies invited fellow Velvets fanatics Richard Barone and James Maestro of the Bongos to hop on stage, then proceeded to tear through a set that sidelined the avant garde escapades of the Velvet Underground to focus squarely on their strengths as a rock’n’roll band.
Rightly celebrated as a key act in the birth of transgressive rock, the Velvet Underground also had a sweet undercurrent flowing through their occasionally abrasive music. Some of this can be chalked up to Lou Reed’s enduring love of doo-wop and R&B, an affection that grounded the group even as they floated far afield on waves of noise and ambience. As a band, the Feelies don’t quite share the same R&B affinity, yet they hone in on that warmth, deliberately sidestepping the ominous dread of “Heroin,” the cacophony of “Sister Ray,” and the poignant sadness of “Pale Blue Eyes” so they can play songs that collectively sound like a celebration.
The Feelies favor no particular era of the Velvet Underground on Some Kinda Love, balancing selections from the group’s early years with John Cale with songs originally sung by Doug Yule, Cale’s replacement in the Velvets. It’s a holistic view of the band that places an emphasis on songs that sound great within the confines of a club. The most telling selection may be “Head Held High,” a rocker that opens the second side of Loaded—the last album Reed made with the group—and the moment where Some Kinda Love kicks into high gear: It’s a song with no higher meaning than being a real good time, which is precisely what the Feelies intend to deliver.
The Feelies play this music with the kind of love and abandon that can only come from living with the songs for decades. They don’t treat the original Velvet Underground recordings as sacred texts: They shape their arrangements to suit their own strengths, choosing to snip off the snappy instrumental coda to “Who Loves the Sun” and streamlining “I Heard Her Call My Name” so it feels like a garage rocker. It’s evident in this performance, as on so much of Some Kinda Love, that drummer Stan Demeski swings more than Maureen Tucker, the drummer that gave Velvet Underground their potent, primitive thrust. Without her almost militant beat, “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Run Run Run” seem lighter, but that isn’t to say Demeski plays conventionally. He propels the music with a playful sense of rhythm, giving Mercer, Million, and bassist Brenda Sauter plenty of room to roam, sliding in and out of grooves and barreling into breakneck rave-ups.
Listeners with a deep knowledge of both bands may be able to appreciate such moments as the conclusion of “White Light/White Heat," which ends with a flurry of noise that feels cathartic, not cataclysmic. (Similarly, they may be the only people amused by the fact that Some Kinda Love is named after a Velvet Underground song not heard on this record.) But even with no prerequisites, Some Kinda Love works as a roaring rock’n’roll record because the Feelies play with such enthusiasm. Their tribute feels like a communion. It’s not a revival—it’s a celebration of their lifeblood.
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