An empty plastic beer cup sailed over the crowd and onto the stage at the Hunter Center when the Feelies launched into the instantly recognizable three-chord riff from “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” during one of several encores on Friday night. It was good to know that, even in the cultured and scenic Berkshires at a refurbished-factory-turned-high-art museum, the universal response to a Stooges song is still to start throwing shit.
The program for the MASS MoCA show quoted a Jon Pareles New York Times article that once described the Feelies in thinking-person’s-rock terms as a “garage band reimagined by mathematicians” and a “punk band for introverts.” That nerd-rock tag always follows the Feelies around a bit, maybe because they looked like punk-rock librarians when they started in the late-’70s and still do today, from guitarist Bill Million’s button-downs and pleated pants to bassist Brenda Sauter’s long dresses and the comfy-looking Uggs she wore onstage.
But that image belies the fact that the Feelies have a downright explosive side, fueled by Glenn Mercer’s furious guitar solos, the dueling eccentric percussion of Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman, and the band’s genius ability to build anticipation for their tempestuous passages with calm-before-the-storm pauses.
Since reuniting in 2008 after a 17-year hiatus, the Feelies typically play a full two sets when they perform, and it often seems to take them until the second set to fully warm up and reclaim that aggressive edge. The MASS MoCA show was no exception, with the band starting out deliberately, calibrating their sound and playing some of their more pastoral songs, from the Good Earth’s gently propelled, moodily evocative “Let’s Go” and “The High Road” to the wistful “Here Before” and “Again Today” from the band’s new album, Here Before.
After covering Bob Dylan obscurity “Seven Days” and adjourning for a brief intermission, the Feelies returned for a fiery second set, capped off by three encores of covers. They started ripping it up during “The Final Word” and “Away” from their 1988 album, Only Life, an animated Mercer in black Chuck Taylors and purple-tinted shades restlessly darting about the stage, fast strumming his guitar, with his MASS MoCA visitor’s pass flapping from his belt.
To the credit of the band’s new material, it fit seamlessly alongside songs decades older. “Time Is Right,” a great bristling punk song from Here Before, sounded perfect followed by the incendiary “Too Far Gone” from Only Life with its “Temperature’s rising” lyric and Mercer’s madman guitar solos.
There was much to love about this show, but the three all-cover encores were undeniably a highlight, from the band’s timely tribute to the recently retired R.E.M. with a cover of the headily nostalgic “Carnival of Sorts (Box Car)” to their taut-twitchy version of the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” a song the Feelies first re-envisioned for their classic 1980 Crazy Rhythms album and could practically claim as their own by now.