All the Freaks Gather Round

The best argument I can make for keeping an open mind about different musical genres and bands is that for the better part of my life one of my favorite bands is a four piece dream pop outfit that broke up in 1996 after releasing only two albums.

In my musical biography, Belly are an outlier. Most bands that I love this deeply have roots in other bands, but not Belly. I liked their hit ‘Feed the Tree’ off their first album, Star, but never really connected with them until their second album, King.

King came out during one of the worst years of my life. It was released on February 13th, less than two weeks after I had surgery to remove a brain tumor, a month after I began to lose my vision, and two months after I flunked out of Boston University.

I was living with a roommate I couldn’t stand and working part time in a liquor store. I didn’t have much money, and what little I did have I tended to spend on the main thing that was keeping me going, comics. Whenever I managed to scrape enough extra together, I would take the bus a few hours to Amherst, Massachusetts, and spend the weekend with my brother. He went to school at the University of Massachusetts and was living in an off-campus apartment with his then-girlfriend-now-wife.

They would have class or things to do during the day so I spent a lot of time just hanging out at their apartment, usually listening to music and playing games on their computer. Between the two of them they had a much better CD collection than I did, so I didn’t mind so much being left alone there while they were out. They had ‘Star’ and got ‘King’ when it came out.

One visit, I brought with me a few blank tapes. This was well before MP3 players when mix-tapes ruled the world. Portable CD players were too expensive, and mostly crap. Burning CDs was a few years off, so it was still all about walkmen. I was (and still am) a huge fan of making mixes and that’s what I intended to do that weekend.

black and white cassette tape
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

On top of the two Belly albums, they had ‘Monster’ by REM, and ‘Mental Jewelry’ from Live. Those four albums would make up the bulk of a mix that I listened to so much I still remember most of it these many years later.

The first side had a couple of tracks from the Judgement Night soundtrack, ‘The Beauty of Grey’ and ‘The Mirror Song’ by Live, ‘Connection’ by Elastica, and ended with the following in order; Feed the Tree, Full Moon Empty Heart, Super Connected, and Now They’ll Sleep.

The second side started with ‘Say It Ain’t So’ by Weezer, ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’ by U2, ‘Good’ by Better than Ezra, and ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ by REM.  There were other songs, but I don’t remember them quite as clearly.

It was this mixtape that cemented a deep love of Belly in me. I would listen to it over and over as I wandered Boston, road the bus back and forth to my brother’s, or back home to Connecticut. I would rewind the four Belly songs and listen to them repeatedly. I have a very distinct memory of walking down Commonwealth avenue, near Kenmore Square,  on my way to a friend’s place with ‘Now They’ll Sleep’ blasting in my ears.

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Boston, near Kenmore Square

The line that I used to reflect on all the time, and still do, is ‘I’m not the hero I could be, but not the dog I was’. I was in a very dark place, and hanging on to anything to keep myself going. The tumor had made it difficult to concentrate, coupled with terrible migraines, and I attributed it in part to why I flunked out of college at the time. I knew I was not ‘the hero I could be’ but I hoped maybe I wasn’t ‘The dog that I was’. I still hope that, to be honest. The sentiment made a difference then, and has stuck with me down through the years.

That’s the way it is with Belly. Their music isn’t sad in the mopey way that, say, The Smiths music is. They’re not wallowing in anything. There’s a certain matter-of-factness to the emotive quality of their songs. Most rock and roll tends to be an emotional roller coaster pushing itself to the extremes that a teenager feels. One day everything is GREAT and the next day everything is the absolute WORST. Belly tackles those feelings the way an adult would. The sadness in their song isn’t the lying face down and crying into your pillow variety, it’s more like drinking tea and looking out the window into the rain on the day after a funeral. It’s profound, but contemplative.

One of the reasons the two albums the bands released in the 90s have stuck with so many people is that they cover the entire spectrum of emotions from joy to misery. More than that, they do it in a way that feels honest and real. Despite being a rock band, the albums don’t feel performative. They’re not disposable. They work their way into your heart and soul and then put down roots. The dreamlike imagery in their songs works on the same level as poetry does when read aloud by someone who really understands both poetry and performance.

A lot of it comes down to Tanya Donelly’s voice. I’ve been trying to think how best to describe it for nearly a week, and the best I’ve come up with is that her voice sounds like the look Julie Delpy gives Ethan Hawke at the end of ‘Before Sunset’, and the grin he gives back. Steely, whimsical, and just the slightest bit sinister when necessary. There’s no one voice similar enough in all of rock and roll that I can think to compare her to.

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Tanya Donelly from 2016

Belly sounds like growing up, with the reminder that the world can still be magical sometimes.

I mentioned earlier that comic books and Belly’s music were two of the things that got me through a hard time. Last week they were intertwined for me again, but in a much brighter way.

 

Belly played a show in Philadelphia on Friday night. The problem for me was I was going to Baltimore for the weekend to attend the Baltimore Comic Con, leaving Friday morning with my brother and some friends. This meant that I would have to drive to Baltimore, hang out for a few hours, then drive to Philadelphia, and then all the way back to Baltimore after the concert. I won’t lie and say I never thought about skipping the show, but when one of your favorite bands has a history of disappearing for 20 years, passing up any chance to see them seems foolish. I’d gotten to see them on their reunion tour the year before and it was wonderful. This time they would be playing songs from their new album. I had given a bunch of money on Pledgemusic to help the album come to fruition and I’ve been really excited to hear those songs live.

And so I took some time off from handing out flyers for my book and headed back north. It’s not a bad drive if you enjoy traffic and tolls.

The venue they were playing, The Union Transfer, is one of my favorites in Philly. It’s not too big, not too small, good sound, plenty of bar space, and most importantly they have their own parking lot. Very few things on this earth will endear a venue to me more than having their own parking lot.

I arrived about 40 minutes before doors. It gave me some time to relax from the drive, and waiting outside the Union Transfer is always an adventure. It’s in a relatively high foot traffic area, and occasionally you get some weirder local characters working the line. My favorite was hanging out before a Jesus and Mary Chain show when a guy came up and began yelling at the line full of aging goths to stop reading his mind.

Nothing so amusing happened this time, but Gail Greenwood, Belly’s wonderful bassist, came out to hang out with people and take pictures. One of the things about Belly and the shows is that they almost feel like a family event. The band doesn’t take things super seriously, and seems to genuinely enjoy the shows and the crowds. Gail spent a good long time hanging around outside and chatting with people. She had to literally be dragged inside to ‘go to work’.

After a while, the doors opened and we went in. There was no opening act since they typically play shows with a brief intermission. The stage was already set up. They weren’t using a backdrop, which somehow added to the familial feel to the show. I saw U2 earlier this year and they have so many props and screens and other bullshit that you get bogged down in it. Belly had none of that. They knew what they were about.

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Before the magic

I was there by myself, but felt very much ‘among my people’. Not every concert has that vibe, but this group, seeing this band we got to know so long ago, felt connected (maybe even…super connected!). We’re all older, maybe with kids, maybe not, but a part of us carries the band with us and that part is familiar across the room. No one that I overheard felt the need to give out their resume (“I saw Belly on every tour…”). It was a good crowd.

The show itself was, of course, dynamite. They opened with ‘Seal My Fate’ from ‘King’, which isn’t their rockingest song, but opens with a cool drum beat and then slowly ramps up. It’s a great opening song to set the mood. It’s also one of my favorites, so that was an added bonus. They ran through a great mix of new and old, peppering in the new songs.

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Tom, Chris, Tanya, and Gail

The highlight of the first half was the last two songs. The day before was the brutal and depressing congressional hearing and there was a heaviness to everything. Gail, who does most of the talking, mentioned it and the reaction was what you would expect from good people everywhere. Acknowledging how hard it was for survivors and that anger fueled a powerful version of ‘Now They’ll Sleep’. I got lost in the song, as I always do, but there was some comfort in the connection through music. I won’t say it made anything better, but like that song did for me so long ago, it took the edge off and reminded me that things can be better. I didn’t need that message nearly as much as some and I hope other people there felt it too. They closed the half with an aching rendition of ‘Silverfish’, which is always poignant but in that moment, felt like it spoke to all the sadness and pain in the world.

After the fifteen minute break they came back out and blasted into the song I will admit I was most excited to hear, Shiny One. This is from the new album and was the first song they released. I love everything about it unreservedly. The vocals, the Oasis-ish rock guitar, the drums, the intensity, everything. It is easily my favorite new song from this year despite a lot of great competition. The song did not disappoint live. Not to gush too much, but it was transcendent. They rolled from that into Gepetto, Faceless (another new one) and then Feed the Tree.

I mentioned they don’t take the proceedings too seriously earlier. What I mean by that is that they laugh, make jokes, and have fun during the songs. They’re all business once the music gets going, even if sometimes they get the giggles and it takes a while to count off the next song. At one point during the show, either Tom or Chris Gorman made a joke about electricity. Specifically he said ‘Crank it Jethro’, and Gail let the crowd know. We all shared a laugh and the band took a while to recover. You don’t see that sort of thing too often at shows and it’s fun when it happens.

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Gail Greenwood, rocking out.

The second half ended with a sing-along to ‘Full Moon, Empty Heart’ and a beautiful ‘Human Child’ which is another off the new album and a pretty special song. It’s an amazing showcase for the love, whimsy, and seriousness in Donelly’s voice. It’s all on display and it’s even more powerful live.

The encore was the stomper ‘Low Red Moon’ and then a gentle acoustic version of ‘Starryeyed’, and then just like that they were gone again.

A few years back I went to a high school reunion. I left town pretty soon after high school so I hadn’t seen many of those folks in years. It was a bit awkward at first, but after a while we had shaken the dust off and felt into old patterns and old laughter. When it was over I knew I wouldn’t see them again for a long time and I wasn’t ready to let go. Leaving the Belly show I had that same feeling. Their music has been with me for so long and has meant so much it felt like home.

Normally I listen to whomever I’m seeing on the way to a show, and then switch it up after. Listening to recorded versions can seem weird after seeing a band live. That night I listened to Belly the whole way back to Baltimore. I just wasn’t ready to let go quite yet.

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Honest to God, I just like this pic.

6 thoughts on “All the Freaks Gather Round

Add yours

  1. Beautifully written. I have such similar feelings about Belly – both the 1993-5 version and the return. You’ve articulated what makes them special so well – thank you!

  2. Wow. Minus the brain tumor (I’m glad you are still with us), my response to King was so very similar. Far outside my usual likes, Feed the Trees was catchy, but King reached deep and has held me for these 20+ years.

    I’ve been listening to Dove almost non-stop for months now. I take little breaks now an then to remind myself that other music exists. Each little wave that follows, swallows the one that came before.

    I went to their show at Royale in Boston in August, and the lineup was similar to what you describe. I went alone. That was somehow fitting, because I discovered Belly alone, that is no one in my group of friends, nor my boyfriend (now husband), got into them. So listening to Belly always seemed like kind of a sacred, private thing for just me. Anyway, the Royale was filled with grey haired suburban types like me, so low key, so down to earth. And when they played Feed the Trees, never one of the songs that really moved me, every single person in that room sang every single word, and I felt like I was part of something great, an organic community united by the experience of becoming our selves at the same time.

    During these last six months, Belly has gone from being one to the bands that I really love to being my absolute, all time favorite band.

    1. I’ve fallen in love with Dove too. It’s such a great album, and sounds like such a fitting extension of Star and then King that I’m still amazed they were able to recapture their magic after all those years.

      I have a similar experience with Belly being a personal obsession. I don’t know many fans, and I went to both shows I’ve been to alone. It doesn’t blunt the experience at all, in fact kind of the opposite.

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