When Belly appeared on the early ’90s alternative-rock radar, there was effectively nothing like it. Plenty of bands built careers around the same type of swaying, magical-realist dream pop that poured out of Tanya Donelly’s pen, and there was no shortage of bent, aggressive guitar groups. But Belly had the vision to fuse the two seemingly opposed approaches into a singular voice, and the band was rewarded with a near-hit in “Feed the Tree,” followed by near-indifference therafter.
Tuesday’s show at Royale, which officially kicked off Belly’s first US tour in over two decades, could have been a chip-on-the-shoulder attempt to reclaim whatever lost glory (real or imagined) it felt was its due. Instead, this was exactly the sort of casual affair that reunions should be but rarely are, with no real stakes beyond the musicians remembering that their band was kind of great once.
The set list seemed to be constructed largely without obligation, with singles and radio favorites tossed in where they flowed best instead of being withheld for a delayed-gratification climax. And there was an easygoing camaraderie between the band members; whenever they spoke to one another or to the audience, their banter looked and sounded genuinely unrehearsed.
The songs were a different matter, showing a fierce focus that nonetheless breathed in the best possible way. Although occasionally mixed to a frustratingly indifferent thump, Gail Greenwood played her bass with a muscularity that bordered on athletic, and the crack of Chris Gorman’s drums kept even a moody dirge like “Low Red Moon” tight. So too did the intensity of Donelly’s piercing, astringent voice, which had lost none of its luster over the years.
Donelly used that intensity well on the dark, pinging roar of “Dusted,” as well as a tough, terrific new song with the apparent working title “Punished,” which she sang as if focusing on an object of pity and contempt. But Belly’s softness also came through in the watery swirl of “Stay,” “The Bees,” and “White Belly,” where the hint of tremolo in Thomas Gorman’s guitar added a vaguely unsettling air.
Fusing both sides of its personality together, the band was never better than on “Red,” whose surrealistic last-dance verses gave way to an aggressive chorus consisting of a single chord hit over and over again with a disconcerting lack of signposts suggesting where to come back in. Belly held it together without an inch of slippage.
At Royale Boston, Aug. 9 (repeats Aug. 12)Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.