The Felice Brothers are one of those bands that seem to have gathered a large cult following based on their earlier albums, in particular ‘Tonight at the Arizona’ and ‘The Felice Brothers’ then disappointed said following with ‘Yonder is the Clock’ and ‘Celebration, Florida’. ‘Tonight at the Arizona’ remains my favourite record of theirs but in no way did the latter albums disappoint me in the way they seemed to disappoint many. Sure, ‘Yonder is the Clock’ is a safe follow up to ‘The Felice Brothers’ but it is not lacking in quality tracks. And who can really criticise a band for cementing their status and securing their fan base before doing something a little different? Which is exactly what they did on ‘Celebration, Florida’. Drum machines, samplers and other contemporary musical aids employed brilliantly, yet many people laid into the record for being ‘disappointing’ or for not sounding like The Felice Brothers. Sometimes being a musician/artist is a no win situation. Play it safe and you’re not brave enough/boring. Do something a bit different and you’re straying too far from what you’re known for. Not many get away with being brave and sometimes – as highlighted by Radiohead – it is only with time that the more risqué albums start to get the appreciation they actually deserve.
I always find that the best way to address such concerns is in the live arena. Wilco do it brilliantly. Those who question later Wilco albums and adore ‘YHF’ and ‘AGIB’ would probably be rendered clueless as to which tracks were from which records if they didn’t know the band and then saw them perform live. And the same can be said of The Felice Brothers. At the ABC on St Patrick’s Day, The Felice boys delivered a show that was quite simply the best thing I have been at in a long, long time. Not just musically, but also as an overall performance, they were superb. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a show and seen a band really truly appreciating doing what they do. You could see it all over their faces. When James addressed the audience saying ‘This is the biggest room we’ve ever played. And it’s full of people’ you could tell that the night genuinely meant so much to them. When the crowd joined in with ‘Whiskey in my Whiskey’ you could see the band were touched, stunned and delighted by the response. Their performace was fun, yes, but delivered in a professional way by hugely talented musicians who are clearly thankful to be able to do what they do for a living.
Some amusing highlights of the show included violinist Greg Farley tossing bread to the audience during ‘Take this Bread’, Craig Finn (lead singer of the Hold Steady and support act for the evening) coming out during ‘Frankie’s Gun!’, dancing and then drunkenly delivering a garbled/rapped version of the second verse of the song – much to the amusement of the Felice Brothers. Finn re-appeared during the encore to clap 2 cans of Red Stripe together over the audience whilst pretending to know the words of the songs. But whilst these moments added humour to the show it is the music itself that did the talking. Tracks such as ‘Hey, Hey Revolver’and ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ were re-worked to fit the feel of the band live. And there was a much bluesier feel to their music live. They remain full on Americana but they add a massive amount of blues to their live sound aided in no small way by the wonderful drawl of Ian Felice on vocals/guitar. That voice. Seriously. James did a fair turn on lead vocals too though. ‘Goddam You, Jim’ far more beautiful than on ‘The Felice Brothers’ with accordion prominent and James’ vocal turning the song into something it’s not on the record. Something more. The whole show. Something much, much more than I had expected. To say I was blown away is an understatement. And the drum machine and sampler was there and used to full effect in old and new tunes. Embracing technology and using it to great effect. They do that without a doubt.
I left the ABC with a massive smile on my face. Craig Finn was a good support act. The antics of Greg Farley were something to behold. The musicianship of Farley and James Felice and the interaction between the two, something special. The Felice Brothers superb. Make no doubt about that. I’d go to see them every night if I could, just to experience that feeling again and again.