The last time alt-rock pioneers Belly toured in support of an album, 1995’s King, the band decided to call it quits. A collection of impeccably crafted pop-rock songs that in a just world should have made Tanya Donelly and company household names, the album failed to exceed, or even match, the success of their 1993 debut, Star. It’s still unclear exactly what caused Belly’s untimely demise: After they reunited in 2016, lead guitarist Tom Gorman called the recording process for King “tough,” while bassist Gail Greenwood, who joined the group shortly after Star’s release, has cited the rigors of touring life.
So it was with cautious curiosity that I approached Belly’s Brooklyn show, the first of a two-night stint at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The band’s music had, after all, served as a gateway drug between the mainstream pop music I grew up listening to as a child and the more alternative sounds bubbling up from the underground during my more angsty teen years. Some of Belly’s early songs now seem just barely out of range for Donelly, but the largely Gen-X audience in attendance last night was happy to assist, especially during the preternatural falsetto intro of “Full Moon, Empty Heart” and other crowd-pleasers like “Feed the Tree” and “Gepetto.” Not surprisingly, the singer sounded more confident belting out the material from this year’s Dove, like the country-inflected “Artifact” and the standout “Human Child,” which has earned its place next to “Slow Dog” and “Super-Connected.”
Along with his brother Chris’s still-sharp drums, Gorman’s pedal-heavy guitar is a driving force behind much of Belly’s music. But aside from the crisp guitar solos on songs like “Silverfish,” he happily cedes the spotlight to his bandmates—sometimes literally, wandering upstage with his back to the audience at various points during the set. This is ultimately the Gail and Tanya Show, with the two women exchanging knowing glances throughout and playing back to back in a feminist upending of cliché rock posturing. Even then, Greenwood emerges as the band’s de facto frontwoman, flipping her streaked blond hair around as she thrashes her sticker-covered electric bass and interacting with the more enthusiastic fans in the crowd. Donelly is inherently a more introverted performer—the pensive singer-songwriter to Greenwood’s show-woman—and the dynamic makes perfect sense.
By the end of the two-and-a-half-hour set—which included, for better or worse, a nearly 30-minute break halfway through the night—the entire band was rocking in lockstep, and they closed the show with a breathtaking rendition of the haunting “Low Red Moon” and the poignant King B-side “Thief.” It’s hard to imagine this is the same group whose professional union dissolved under the strain of what Donelly calls personal politics. Twenty-three years apparently heals all wounds.