The glory of The Felice Brothers

Review: Despite a run-in with the police, the New York-based quartet keeps things cheerful during the local stop of their tour.

The Felice Brothers had plenty of cause for low morale on Friday night, yet their spirit and energy hit a climactic high by the end of their show at the Westcott Theater.  

The band of four, who travels by Winnebago, had been pulled over by police within yards of the venue and issued seven tickets (for what exactly, they didn't specify). Consequently, The Felice Brothers kicked off their set about an hour and a half past the original 9 p.m. start time.  

They opened with “Marlboro Man,” during which frontman Ian Felice jumped atop the bass drum for his guitar solo, as if determined to make up for lost time and momentum -- never mind that the song is a ballad.  

Perhaps they needed first to vent (“It's almost definite/I'm really on my way to hell”), but the gloomy tune didn't set the tone for the rest of the show. By the final encore, The Felice Brothers were literally singing “glory, glory Hallelujah,” and inviting fans to join them on stage. About 40 took them up on the offer. The band and their fans were all smiles, sweat and singing into the final moments of the set.  

Photo: Will Halsey
Fiddler Greg Farley concentrates on the music.

The Felice Brothers is a band of humble beginnings and well-exercised resilience. They do, after all, travel in a Winnebago -- sometimes going a week or more without showers -- and they have made do with a chicken coop as a recording studio. They're pretty good at rolling with the punches.  

It probably also helps that the bandmates themselves are so close. The band is anchored by two brothers: Ian Felice, on lead guitar and vocals, and James Felice, who sings and plays piano, organ and accordion. The Felices are rounded out by long-time friends Christmas Clapton (bass guitar and vocals), Greg Farley (fiddle and, yes, washboard), as well as various touring drummers.  

Traditional and unconventional instruments come together in The Felice Brothers' rootsy Americana style. Their sound is fresh and raw, yet echoes with folk and rock influences of generations past. It has specifically been compared to collaborations between Bob Dylan and The Band.  

But The Felice Brothers' live show and recordings are different, though complementary. The recorded music is more precise in vocals and instrumentation, and has a better lyrical showcase of the band's eloquent story-telling. The live show is an all-out jam session, where the audience gets a sense of their passion and musicianship.  

Friday's show was no exception. The song “Goddamn You, Jim,” for example, is hushed and eerie on the band’s self-titled album -- just a reverent accordion and James' husky voice whispering goosebump-worthy lyrics about a woman losing her mind after the death of her son. On stage, though, James was joined by the others on guitar, violin, and drums, before they all erupted into heartbreaking wails on their instruments.  

“Whiskey in my Whiskey” is a country-western tune whose twang is fit for a two-step, though it happens to be about a man killing his unfaithful lover. In concert it became a mirthful drinking song; James belted the words at a full octave higher, yelling the song more than singing it.

Probably the most fun song of the night, though, was “Take this Bread.” Always cheery and upbeat, it was especially meaningful at Friday's show. James and Ian sang together and the audience sang along, while Farley threw something (pieces of bread, maybe?) out into the crowd.  

The Felice Brothers were not about to let their unfortunate welcome to Syracuse spoil a good time for their audience, or for themselves. They smiled as they sang: “I ain't got a lot, but all I got/You're welcome to it/'Cause I'm all right if you're all right.”

James Felice, of The Felice Brothers, plays the accordion on Friday night.

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