I didn’t quite know what to think when I first saw the Felice Brothers. I thought it was a joke.
It was cold, snowing I think, outside of Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence a few years back. Well, it was more than a few years. We were in high school, a few of my friends and I, when we went to see Bright Eyes in Providence.
The venue was half-full when we got in, and the dingy lights from the chandeliers and cigarette smell seeping through the walls made everything feel old-fashioned. Someone was on stage playing something upbeat and jazzy on piano that only people directly in front of the stage were paying attention to. There was commotion at the merchandise table, and a group of vagabond-looking folks were standing behind it, passing around a pint of Jack. We didn’t really pay attention, though. Until that same group of rough-looking guys left the merch table and showed up on stage five minutes later.
I’ll be honest. I don’t remember what they played first and I really only remember small pieces of the show, but what I do remember is that I didn’t quite understand it. The singer’s gaunt and dirty frame slouched over the microphone while he sang into it. A big man in a black t-shirt played the accordion and took swigs from an unmarked bottle, and danced and play-fought around the stage getting drunker as the night went on. The drummer could barely keep tempo and was standing up at his drum kit.
What I do remember, is that it was nothing like we’d ever heard. The crowd played along and cheered and was enamored with this band who either couldn’t or were too drunk to play their instruments.
After their set, they all showed back up at the merchandise table in the back of the room. We walked over. They were friendly, almost too friendly, and didn’t try to sell us anything. They smelled like liquor and cigarettes and dirty clothes. My friend bought two books that one of the members had written. I bought a tee-shirt for ten bucks and chatted with the drummer, whom I’d later learn was Simone Felice, the oldest “Felice Brother.”
He went into one of the boxes on the table and took out two white album sleeves.
“Here’s two albums we did,” he said. “You get them free because you bought a tee-shirt.” Then he stuck a “Felice Brothers” pin on my shirt and laughed and drank some more whiskey.
I’ll talk a little bit about the recent discography of the Felice Brothers later, but I want to focus on these two albums. They were called “Tonight at the Arizona” and “The Adventures of the Felice Brothers, Part I.”
If we’re conducting something serious here, then I’ll be honest. This is all a relatively moot investigation, because the albums I’m speaking of aren’t even on Spotify, which of course means that they don’t exist and probably never existed. We’re talking about a ghost album; an artifact that I once held in my hand, given to me by the drummer, which was on a blank Staples disk stuffed into a white envelope, with the names of the albums scribbled in permanent marker. The problem is, I have no idea where those albums went.
This all makes me think that I’m some Paul Clayton figure, searching the hills of Upstate New York and the buildings of Providence for old relics of folk music; folk music played in the 21st century by a couple of brothers, recorded in a high school basement during a thunderstorm on a 2-track. I guess I’m just perpetuating or buying into the myth of the modern folk song; the myth that every folk singer is a Woody Guthrie character who rambles the country gambling on freight trains and working in a steel mill.
The whole “myth”—if we call it that—of the Felice Brothers relies on their appearance and their makeup. This is the story of three brothers from Upstate New York and their friend Christmas. They began playing music together where any other folk group would: At church.
Ian Felice sings and plays guitar, James plays the accordion, and Simone—although he doesn’t anymore—played the drums (barely). Christmas is supposedly a family friend who came on to play bass. They call him Christmas Felice and I haven’t yet decided if his real name is Christmas or if he adopted it after reading Light in August.
When one thinks of new Americana music, you think of cleanly strummed or picked acoustic grand guitar, beautiful soulful or twangy voices and effortlessly flawless harmonies. The Felice Brothers are not this.
At his best, Ian Felice rattles out melodies like a boxer would throw twelfth round jabs. His speech is wheezy and he slurs his words in most songs, and his voice cracks when he sings in falsetto. You get the feeling that James and Simone would have been fine singing in front of the church, but when Ian was in front, all of the people would whisper to each other “you know, that boy should really just stick to playing the guitar.”
The lack of polish, the rawness, I think, is what draws me. The songs on those two albums feel dynamic and eminent and real. I’ve read that both of those albums were recorded in some shack, some “chicken coop”, on a two-track mixer. This may also be “perpetuating the myth” but it could be true, right?
In the first few bars of “Hey, Hey Revolver,” if you listen closely, the recording cracks and the volume minimizes for a moment before it gets back up to normal level. Felice’s guitar rolls on and before he sings, you can hear thunder rolling somewhere in the mix. “Hey, hey, revolver,” Felice sings. “Don’t lead me on.” Something about it makes you believe him.
Folk music, especially in this vein, won’t impress you by its complexity or use of lyrics or vocal talent. It will impress you by proving that it’s real.
I like the Felice Brother’s newer stuff (aside from the forgettable Celebration Florida).Their newest album, Favorite Waitress, has some good moments; moments that show off Ian’s songwriting and lyrical ability that I heard in those first two albums.
This is supposedly the first album that they’ve recorded in an actual studio. Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes produced it and his signatures are everywhere. I listen to it though, and cant help think that their music can’t exist settled down and tied up in a bow like this. It needs to be suspended somewhere, like smoke on a windless night, just before it disappears into the dawn.
We never did get an “Adventures of the Felice Brothers, Part II.” Maybe we’ll get it one day. Maybe we’ll have to find Ian Felice, search in the saloons and dive bars of Poughkeepsie or the streets of Syracuse or Cooperstown or maybe on the side of some Interstate, smoking next to his broken-down van.
Or maybe it’s better that we never get it. Maybe we should leave it as it is; in a shack or in an out-of-date concert venue that smells like stale smoke or in the middle of a thunderstorm.