November 21, 2010

Off the Record: The Felice Brothers

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There’s a danger to judging a band by only its records. It seems silly to say, but sometimes songs are a lot more about the scene and mood then the chords and notes. That being said, experiencing a band first hand can make you appreciate an otherwise maligned genre. Take hardcore punk for instance: Recordings can be grating and are often p­­oorly produced. But when you go to the shows, many bands’ charisma can be surprising and crowds’ willingness to sacrifice life and limb (seriously) for the music they love becomes infectious. By the end of the night, you often find yourself throwing elbows and shouting along to supremely vulgar breakdowns, swept away by the immediacy of the experience.I experienced something similar Saturday night. The Felice Brothers, on record, were not the most impressive group. They had some good country rock songs and did a pretty good job at evoking comparisons to The Band or Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, but they weren’t something I’d find myself listening to on a consistent basis. They also didn’t help themselves with their timing: slated to go on at nine, they didn’t take the stage until nearly an hour later. The deck, it seems, was stacked against them.Their eyes were bleary, and they were hardly well-coifed, but damn could these guys play. Launching with aplomb into songs called “Whiskey in My Whiskey,” “Frankie’s Gun” and “Where’d You Get The Liquor?” these guys were your ideal country bar band. Ian Felice’s guitar-playing, while skillful, felt drunkenly shambolic; the rhythm section kept things simple, but propelled things at just the right speed and volume to make the full band ballads come to cathartic climaxes; James Felice’s accordion fleshed songs out beautifully, making the five-piece sound bigger than they were; and multi-instrumentalist Farley was exceptional, playing trumpet, fiddle and hype-man, keeping the crowd (ever the willing group of participants) involved with sing-alongs and hand-claps. And, of course, one can’t omit his skills on the washboard. Farley played it with reckless abandon, tossing it across stage and scraping joyously along to the more rollicking tunes.Comparisons to The Band are particularly apt; like the folk rock legends, The Felice Brothers’ songs are mostly about people (drunks) and places (bars), with new characters being introduced in each song and details fleshed out in a very casual, conversational tone. The Brothers also switch lead vocal and instrumental duties quite freely. Everyone in the band, save the drummer, got opportunities to sing lead, giving the unit a very democratic, laid back appearance, as if their performance was just something they were doing for kicks and the crowd was an accident. The Brothers’ charisma did not stem from any sort of Ezra Koenig-esque wit (they only spoke to the audience to thank them for their attendance and to emphasize how much better ending their tour in Ithaca was than ending it in Columbus, Ohio) or drunken joking; they just seemed to be really, really into their music, rocking back and forth to every song and closing their eyes during their solos. Ian Felice’s guitar playing, also, was fantastic. Since he doesn’t use a pick, he doesn’t pluck strings with equal pressure, resulting in his guitar sounding as if it’s being hit rather than strummed. While his playing sounded somewhat sloppy, it also sounded brilliant. Felice played everything very tastefully, rarely resorting to fretboard-wanking and thereby staying perfectly within the slightly buzzed bar band aesthetic the band had created for themselves. But what made the night for me, personally, was the exuberant crowd. Almost everyone constantly had a drink in hand and everybody was entirely enveloped in the music, singing along to every song and dancing (which is a nice thing to see in a time where the hipster default of “standing still and nodding” is growing more popular every day). The highlight of the night came during the final song of the night, when the crowd rushed the stage to dance and sing with the band, who played the song perfectly nonchalantly, as if the stage had been the right place for the audience to be all along. And therein lies the allure of the Felice Brothers as a live band: They’re crowd pleasers, and the instant familiarity of the songs brings young and old, hipsters and good ole country boys together to drink, dance and, in general, have a kick-ass time.

Original Author: James Rainis