Bang bang bang went the Felice Brothers last night as they shot Stockholm down with their customary ramshackle, raucous, rocking hoedown of a show. Even the usually reserved Swedes got excited last night but it is hard not to with this band on stage.
The Felice Brothers fall into that rather nebulous category of Americana. They flit between barn dance like country with washboards at the fore to outlaw ballads to booze soaked piano bar band to indie rock, with on their last but one album a heavy dose of electronica thrown in.
But their songs and lyrics and style, with a loose but natural and timeless quality, steeped in American culture, old and new, mostly conjure up the idea of a modern day The Band. And this is an accolade that they are worthy of. And geographically associated with too, with the two actual brothers of the band coming from the Catskill mountains, home of Woodstock and The Band’s legendary Big Pink house.
The Felice Brothers also seem to be made up of a cast of characters that are as misfit and diverse as their songs.
Lead singer and guitar player Ian Felice is a Dylanesque presence. Short and scrawny with a long fringe covering his eyes, he looks an enigmatic and slightly troubled soul and someone who is not at home in the limelight. He asked for the lights last night to be turned down as he felt like he was “in a dentist’s chair”. But he is also an intense presence, and sings with bursts of energy and jagged movements as words are spat into the microphone, which he often doesn’t reach quite in time.
His brother James Felice couldn’t be more opposite. The pianist and accordion player, a big guy, he oozes warmth, fun and big heartedness and you are sure he is at the centre of every family get together, encouraging everyone to sing along. He sings some of the more old time songs in the band’s repertoire too, with a deep wonderful whiskey soaked voice. Fitting especially for the early airing last night of the sing along Whiskey In My Whiskey!
A third brother, Simone Felice, used to be the band’s drummer and third vocalist but he left some years ago to go solo. The current drummer is David Estabrook, who with side burns and cap looks like a trucker.
Long term member Greg Farley plays fiddle and washboard. He looks fresh faced and like James oozes enthusiasm, hopping and dancing around non stop and urging the audience to clap and sing. Clad in a hoody he also presents a wonderful visual contradiction of what a violin player “should” look like.
The last member is bass player Christmas Clapton. He falls more into Ian’s side of the band, both literally where he stands on stage and in his demeanour. The brothers came across Christmas when he was a travelling dice player, so the story goes, and while his appearance is that of a pretty regular denim clad guy, he has a far out look in his face that suggests he has seen some things.
And so at the beautifully grande but perhaps overly lit and miscast venue of the Bryggarsalen in Stockholm last night this achingly hip band performed to the achingly hip Stockholm set for the first ever time. Though as my American friend rightly pointed out to me the guys on stage look hip but they really live the life that they sing about. The crowd couldn’t be more opposite. And for sure, the Felice Brothers ooze authenticity.
Whether singing about “Trailer McDonald’s rest stops” and seeing “a man hit my mom one time, really, I hurt him so damn bad I had to hide in Jersey” in their utterly brilliant Frankie’s Gun or hearing “Thelma and Louise making love under the poplar trees, we could hear some screaming, sounded like a slaughterhouse,” in Wonderful Life, you believe them.
A wonderful Life is an intense ballad with imagery from the civil war “the night Richmond burned” also reminding us of The Band, but sung by Ian with an intense deliberate phrasing that is heartbreaking “now all I do is sing sad songs with red eyes.”
Frankie’s Gun meanwhile is a raucous catchy blast of hot American road dust with an infectious chorus of “bang bang went Frakie’s Gun” being blown out by the whole band.
Both songs were performed with complete commitment last night along with other stand out tracks from that 2008 album including Take this Bread, whose “I’m alright if you’re alright” refrain seems to sum up the band’s spirit of camaraderie and is also an infectious chorus.
Other highlights last night included Penn Station and Chicken Wire from 2009’s Yonder is the Clock album. Both in the rousing clattering ramshackle vein of Frankie’s Gun and along with the traditional cover Cumberland Gap made you just wanna take your partner by the hand and run around the room yee haaing.
Ponzi from their more contemporary sounding Celebration, Florida album, though on record drenched in snyth sounds, last night brought out the band’s wonderfully raw harmonies. All but the drummer took turns on lead vocals at some point during the night.
The few songs form their recent album Favorite Waitress, were also a joy to hear and wonderfully representative of the band’s diversity. Last night’s opener, Meadow of a Dream, from the current album, is a bar room bluesy indie sounding song with a lilting guitar and fiddle riff and crashing drums that has a cowboy chorus about wanting to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
While the opening of the encore, Saturday Night, also from the new album, starts as a sort of end of night drunken Nick Cave cabaret, with strange sounds and a lead vocal delivered, just about, by Christmas, who sings of insurance fraud, David Letterman and valium. The chorus breaks out into a more rootsy energetic cry by the whole band of “off with his head”. Intense, weird, soaked in old and new imagery, brilliant.
The final song was Jimmy Cliff cover Too Many Rivers to Cross. A rather somber ending though Ian looked like he might burst a blood vessel as each chorus became louder and more intense.
A big fan of this band, I only by chance saw that they were playing in Stockholm the night before the gig. But what good fortune I did. It is hard to believe that they will probably just break even from this tour and emerged after the show to pack up their own equipment with no road crew in site. They might just be one of the best live bands I have seen in many years.