August 15, 2016
Maybe we just didn't know what to do with Belly back in the day. Their 1993 debut, “Star” — a lustrous and pretty rock record propelled by jangling guitars and dramatic flourishes — went gold and earned a Grammy nomination in the brand-new “Best Alternative Album” category. “Feed the Tree” and “Gepetto” were granted decent rotation on MTV, especially on “120 Minutes” and “Alternative Nation.”
Though I can’t find the clip to back it up, I remember singer Tanya Donelly in an interview shaking her head at all the attention, saying something along the lines of “thanks, but what exactly are we an alternative to?”
The second record, “King,” came in 1995 but by then the thrill was gone. Quoth Wikipedia: “The album and its singles did not meet label expectations in the grunge-friendly atmosphere of 1995, and the band broke up shortly after it was released.”
So Donelly — an impossible alt-rock keystone, having also helped found The Breeders and Throwing Muses — went solo.
To modern ears, “King” is the better record, outshining “Star” with more idiosyncratic charms, more lush sound and more opportunities for Donelly’s voice to soar. That certainly seemed to be the case last night at Union Transfer, wherein a reunited Belly circa the second record (i.e. Gail Greenwood on bass) powered through career highlights in a two sets plus an encore.
The evening started with the deceptively chaotic “Puberty” and blossomed from there: “Slow Dog,” “White Belly,” “Dusted,” etc. Some, like the deliciously moody “Low Red Moon,” felt raw and modern, while “Feed the Tree” couldn’t quite shake off the overexposure it suffered two decades back. They rushed through it. Meanwhile, coulda-been hits like “Now They’ll Sleep” and “Seal My Fate” (recently used in a touching Rick & Morty montage) pulsed with fresh energy. The highlight of the evening was “Super-Connected,” an underappreciated single off “King” that thoroughly rocked the crowd.
Donelly, who can still hit the high notes with minimal strain despite a gorgeously deeper and darker vocal baseline, seemed overjoyed to be there. So did everybody, really — especially the talkative and engaging Greenwood. There’s always a chance this reunion’s a one-tour nostalgic-type deal, but it seems like Belly’s back for real, judging by the presence of new songs on the setlist.
I just wish the new stuff was more grungey, you know?