Underneath the murky swell of smoke and musk at Kentish Towns’ The Forum, what appeared to be a rogue band of traveller-musicians shambled on stage. Dressed in raggedy clothes and oversized t-shirts, they wouldn’t have looked out of place at a street production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Armed with a fantastic array of instruments; violins, accordions, an organ and a huge, looming drum-kit; they lit up the stage extraordinarily. If one didn’t know the brothers – and they are brothers – one may be inclined to think they came from the southern depths of America.
It is surprising then, to find out that The Felice Brothers come from upstate New York, near the beautiful Adirondacks. It’s a place with a foreboding name; The Catskill Mountains. They live remotely, at a ranch with a chicken coop. These farmhands, however, house a glittering array of books. In a past interview, I remember James Felice – vocalist and accordian maestro – lamenting the fact they never get recognised as being ‘bookish’. They came across as intelligent artists; shy and retiring, full of ambition & vigour which burnt silently under the surface.
It was this vigour that was so resplendent tonight.
The band played crowd stompers, hee-haww anthems, ballads and the signature songs – Frankie’s Gun, Whiskey in my Whiskey, Love Me Tenderly.
It’s the brooding numbers that get me like a kick in the nutsack. The songs swell and swell, until you either get lost or fall over. This made for a laugh when my mate did exactly that. The fact he was blind drunk by this point was neither here nor there.
These songs have that authentic Felice feel; they’re bluesy; they have characters and more importantly narrative. Outlaws, bent card-dealers and lizard-licking drunks shag Eleanor, fight with Danny, then get shot by Frankie – who fortunately is an AA counsellor, “Frankie you’re a friend of mine/ Got me off a bender after long-legged Brenda died”.
Here we were at the great Forum. My companion was a chap whose first language was football and music was somewhere down the list filed under ‘other enjoyments which aren’t as essential as eating’. This lead a strange ambience to the night, when even after the band had come on – to great cheering and clapping – he still rambled on in my ear about the Russian head coach and how he has lost all faith in international football since the last world cup. A very valid point which deserves further discussion just as The Felice Brothers deserved his attention that night.
We had missed the two support bands so I can’t comment on them, although one gent in the urinals believed the second act to be like a band of misfit’s so deranged they had brought on the remains of their grandma’s whom they had enjoyed as a midday snack. Those were his exact words. Anyway, I digress.
The band came on. Originally, they featured all three brothers, but former drummer Simon Felice upped and left, started a new act with Robert ‘Chicken’ Burke called The Duke & the King (named after the duo con-artists in Huckleberry Finn). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there have been rumours of animosity ever since. Not all was well in the Catskill Mountains it seems.
Its worth noting Simon is successful in his own right; he’s a prolific poet & author. He’s overcome his fair share of adversities; at a young age he was pronounced clinically dead for several minutes after a brain aneurysm.
Back to the gig…
This modern incarnation of the brothers features only two of them, Ian and James. They were joined by former travelling dice player “Christmas Clapton”, fiddle player Greg Farley and drummer Dave Estabrook. Ian is lead vocalist and a drainpipe of a man. James holds court with his accordion like a rugged, beautiful bear. He’s huge and his muscular arms look perfect for a scrap. His demeanour seems gentle however, like Walt Whitman inviting you to a pint. He sits down at the piano for the ballads. The accordion comes out for the fast-paced stompers, where people romp & fist the air, and in my drunken friend’s case, mockingly dance like a hillbilly.
They came on with the lights bright on them; the smoke misty fog around their ankles. My football obsessed friend made refreshing remarks, “that guitarist will fall over any minute by the weight of that guitar. Look how big the guitar is and how fookin’ skinny he is!” He was skinny but nimble on his feet like a basketball player.
They went into the stomper Take This Bread! Well received from the crowd. A brilliant melody with a biblical quality to the lyrics. It really is like going to a drunken shack-party. Next up was Day of the Big Surprise.
There were some scorching violin ballads with notes breaking into the air like a stiletto cutting cable wire. All this was complimented by schizophrenic lighting and buzzing amps. The atmosphere became increasingly dramatic throughout the show – at one point James looked heavenwards, sweat on his brow; bathing in the ecstasy of the Almighty.
The drink had snuck up on me. Too many cheap lagers and whiskey shots. I was being chucked side to side by none other than a Jarvis Cocker impersonator. My hooligan friend was nowhere to be seen. A man with a moustache and spectacles – the most unlikely candidate for mosh-pit aggression – pushed into me hard and I went under. A wave of people collided over me, stomping on my hands like I was nothing but road-kill. I thought my time was up. Then, like a golden angel my football-fanatic mate rescued me. He shoved and kicked, beautifully violent, pulling me up with a force reserved for those who’ve been marched out of football stadiums for rioting. What a wonderful man. I could have kissed him. Instead I dusted myself off, trying to look like I hadn’t hypothetically shat myself.
This sort of stuff was always going to happen at a gig like this. After all, this is the sort of band that rhyme bad mechanics with manic depressives.
After that menacing episode things calmed down. The band went into The Greatest Show on Earth, and focus returned to the music. It was all shadows on stage. Suddenly great drumsticks appeared through the mist. He was using mallets. I felt the bass reverberating through my bones. The curtains were roaring red like lipstick gum. Suddenly the crowd broke into a fury as the band played Frankie’s Gun. I was now expecting a bar-room brawl. Luckily it was nothing but love. We were through the danger-zone.
To encore they went into the best song of the night, Love me Tenderly. A story of pillboxes, dime-sacks and diamond watches – this is The Felice Brothers at their best. The lyrics “A sunny day, a shotgun and a Chevrolet” still ringing in my ear’s long after the gig.
The Felice Brothers are a special enigma of a band; the bassist looks like a space-nerd, they write fantastic literary songs of outlaws and drunks, they play virtuoso violin ballads, and yet they still manage to sound like they learnt to play in an Irish pub. This night they came to The Forum and dominated.
By Tom Proctor
An album which seemed much overlooked and undiscovered but, because of that, was all the more fantastic to find. A rare gem, it seemed to me at the time, and I cradled its tunes like a baby cradles their new rattle at night. And at night is when this music really hits you, when it weights heavy on your soul. Its got the power to creep up on you, twist your backbone inside out and somehow leave you with a pleasant drowsy warm feeling lingering in your head.
A splendid album with some songs which seem much too mature for its young author. They build and break like waves upon the shore. When they burst, they either flow over you with deep melodies or break off frenetically, with chords and notes spluttering – but rarely in an uncontrolled way. This last mention is partly a shame though, as it’d almost be nice to see young Trevor Powers – only 24 – loose his inhibitions and let a bit of madness exhibit the steady momentum in his build-ups.
All the less, its a truly rewarding album which listen after listen will only compliment. Also I’d say it needs a few listens to realise the depth of its power and resonance, at first glance I even found some of the synth motifs to be slightly annoying. However, more listens revealed its inner beauty, as is the case with many fine albums such as LCD Soundsystem’s This is Happening, for example.
Have a listen to July, one of the stand out tracks on the album.