It's unreasonable to expect a band that gets back together after a prolonged absence to sound like its old self. Or is it? The Feelies, performing in Boston for the first time in more than 15 years Saturday, proved it's at least possible.
Playing to a shamefully sparse crowd at the Roxy, the Feelies looked neither fat nor happy after the long layoff, and their sound was just as fierce. The two-guitar attack of Glenn Mercer and Bill Million was as manic as ever, but also muscular. If anything, time away has enhanced the band's kinetic charm.
The group, which released four fine records before breaking up in the early '90s, could not have been heartened to see so few faces in the crowd, but if they were disappointed, they didn't show it. Mercer and Million, backed by metronomic drummer Stanley Demeski, bassist Brenda Sauter, and percussionist Dave Weckerman, crafted a chiming cacophony worthy of their pre-punk progenitors the Velvet Underground.
It took a few songs for the Feelies to uncoil completely, but they finally did on "Deep Fascination," with Mercer's sneering vocal and snarling fret work in perfect proportion.
As they implicitly acknowledged with their encore cover of "Paint It Black," the Feelies do not have a broad musical palette. Like VU, they are a jam band in the best sense: They settle into a groove and then dig deeper.
It's a testament to their talents that the Feelies did not immediately trot out chestnuts from "Crazy Rhythms," their seminal 1980 LP. Instead, the band drew heavily from their later LPs, "The Good Earth" and "Only Life." (By our count, the band played just two songs, "Doin' It Again" and "Sooner or Later," from their final album, released in 1991.)
The strongest songs of the band's fevered, 90-minute set - "Away" and "Slipping (into Something)" to name two - featured rhythms that were indeed crazy, with Demeski's drumming and Weckerman's wood block keeping a maniacal beat while the unsmiling Mercer bounced around in his oversize "Street Hassle" shades. (The between-song small talk was handled by Sauter, who promised that the band would not stay away so long next time.)
After a frenzied version of "Too Far Gone," which sounded like the "Batman" theme on mescaline, the band reached back to its influential first LP, playing potent versions of "Raised Eyebrows," "Crazy Rhythms," and "Fa Ce La." Their thirst not quite quenched, the crowd called the Feelies back to the stage two times, and were treated to covers of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On," Wire's "Outdoor Miner," Jonathan Richman's "I Wanna Sleep in Your Arms," and "She Said She Said" by the Beatles.
With that, the Feelies waved goodbye again.