July 18th, 2015
Beards. Beards fucking everywhere. And everyone is drinking Brewdog. The Felice Brothers are a country folk band from…New York. And they have a bass player named ‘Christmas’. There’s much for the more cynical music snob to get worked up about already. But hey, it’s Saturday night.
It’s all actually rather great. The aforementioned accordion player is a larger than life character who is practically the front man. No mock folky clobber. The band look like a bunch of ‘bros’, playing at the local bar for kicks.
The Felice Brothers have been plugging away since 2006. Their sound owes an awful lot to 70’s vintage Bob Dylan and The Band. Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ album is played nearly in it’s entirety before the headliners take the stage, almost like someone has hit the ‘Genius’ button on a big iPod, ‘if you like this band, then you’ll like this other band’ etc. Americana-tinged rock can take you all over the world. Even to a small venue in Aberdeen, Scotland where the draft lager is off. Luckily, the Brothers don’t seem like an ‘ego’ band, the sort of group who will just phone it in because they’re playing a less than full venue in the back of beyond.
Felice Brothers have two types of songs: Fast Ones and Slow Ones. The Slow Ones tend to be sad stories, full of sad imagery, ‘drunks in the falling snow’, ‘please lay your weary hand in mine’. Stuff like that. The Fast Ones tend to sound like what a Scottish person imagines a ‘hootenanny’ to sound like. The fiddler whirls, the accordion blares. Drunken people attempt to dance and yes, people at this show are dancing. Some attempt reels during the Fast Ones. There is definite waltzing during the Slow Ones.
(So this is going well, I’ve divided five albums worth of a band’s output into Slow Ones and Fast Ones. Come and get me The Quietus…)
The set begins with ‘Murder by Mistletoe’. Singer Ian Felice sounds a lot like Bob Dylan. I may have alluded to that already but there’s no getting away from. Musically, it’s a warm, enchanting song that sees the first few rows swaying, despite the fact it’s about a homicide. It’s like a smoothed out version of The Walkmen. There are worse things to be. Much of the set is, of course, taken up by tracks from the latest album, ‘Favorite Waitress’. This album is a return to their base sound following the clunky experimentations of ‘Celebration, Florida’. The band roar through ‘Lion’ (yeah, I said it), Ian Felice spitting the lyrics at times. Near the songs climax, all the band sing together and you can’t help but smile. It’s not a new trick but then again the Felice Brothers aren’t even pretending to push any envelopes.
The highlight of the show for me was accordion player and pianist James Felice taking on vocal responsibilities for old song ‘Whiskey in My Whiskey’. A song which sounds flat on record is absolutely belted out. It’s a song that threatens to turn into ‘Dirty Old Town’ at any moment but no one seems to care. In a small venue like this you can nearly hear the words thump his ribcage. And being a drinking song about heartbreak, it gets one of the best responses tonight, much singing along and drinks held aloft. During the middle eight, he goes all Nashville showbiz and introduces the band members individually before returning to the song.
‘The Big Surprise’ is full of ramshackle paranoid dread, like Thom Yorke sitting in on the Basement Tapes sessions. There’s even a rapturously received guitar wig out. Doing nothing to dismiss Dylan comparisons, there are not one but two songs that concern boxing. ‘Cus Catskill’s Gym’ is a fantastic rant of a song though (‘stay away from Don King’, ‘burn down old Vegas Strip’). Cars are mentioned in many tracks, talking of which there’s a big tip of the hat to Springsteen in new track ‘Meadow of a Dream’. The band play a few songs from before they were signed, ‘Marie’ being another track where James Felice hollers like a latter day Bob Seger. They do the old encore thing after ‘Mating of the Doves’ and then come back to play a short encore which includes probably their best known song, ‘Frankie’s Gun!’
We had a lot of fun. Surprisingly so. It reminded me of when you go and see one of your favourite bands but then end up seeking out the music of the support band when you get home. That’s not to say the Felice Brothers are a ‘support band’ level group. It’s just that this is not the sort of band I would normally listen to. It’s one of those instances, especially in these days of Spotify and Apple Music, where everything is so instantly accessible; ‘Why listen to a band so indebted to i.e. Dylan when you could just listen to Dylan?’ Well Dylan ain’t here and if he was, he’d be playing all his new stuff and only mangling all his old stuff into organ led blues numbers. And therein lies the appeal of the Felice Brothers live experience. You don’t necessarily have to be a fan; you don’t need to know the back catalogue. They play a brand of music that is timeless, sounds good with a drink and, most importantly, you can dance with a partner to. They’re in no danger of playing a big stage at Glastonbury or gracing the cover of Rolling Stone. They’re not going to produce a ‘Kid A’. To continue the 70’s theme, they could be the band from the movie ‘Almost Famous’, the plucky underdogs who can fill a room but aren’t going to make it.
If you’re reading anything on this site, there’s a good chance you’re into some weird shit. Musically. But sometimes you just want to have a few drinks, twirl your partner and make on you’re having a night out in a neon-lit honky-tonk in the Southern states of the US. You can do that at Felice Brothers show.
‘Favorite Waitress’ is out now on Dualtone