Review of the Felice Brothers @ Brooklyn Bowl | 10/29/14
When the Felice Brothers first took the stage at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl this past Wednesday evening for a special Halloween show, it was easy to mistake the group for a confused, twisted classic rock covers band. Opening their own show as the “Nun Neil Young All-Stars,” the Felice Brothers played a thrilling opening set of classic rock covers from some of their favorite songwriters and deepest influences. With primary singer-songwriter Ian Felice dressed up as “Neil Nun,” bassist Christmas Clapton dressed up as “Slob Dylan,” violinist/multi-instrumentalist Greg Farley as “Moose Springsteen,” and keyboardist James Felice serving as “Randy Newman’s Own,” the five-piece outfit performed a joyous, crowd pleasing set of classic rock covers.
Ian Felice tore through Neil Young hits like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Ohio,” with highlights being a faithful, particularly inspired take of “Cortez The Killer.” James Felice played Randy Newman classics “Short People” and “Louisiana 1927,” the latter coming in a particularly inspired transition after Ian’s fierce rendition of “Southern Man.” Greg Jenkins took a few rare turns on vocals for some incredible fun, karaoke-inspired takes on “The Promised Land” and “Dancing in the Dark.” The whole band, and Jenkins in particular, seemed to be having an absolute blast during their opening covers set. “That was a dream come true,” Jenkins said of his Springsteen impersonating later in the evening, during the band’s main set. The thrilling opening set closed off with a loose, feel-good take on “Like a Rolling Stone” from Clapton.
After a short break between sets, the Felice Brothers returned, without costume, for a proper set that spanned the band’s near-decade long discography. “We’ve been doing this for a long time,” James Felice told me during an interview with American Songwriter magazine earlier this spring. “It’s sort of weird to think about, but we’re pros now.” Watching the band work through well worn classics (“Wonderful Life,” “Where’d You Get the Liquor”), new favorites (“Saturday Night,” “Meadow of a Dream”,) and obscure deep tracks and covers from their overlooked release God Bless You Amigo (“Cumberland Gap,” “Lincoln Continental”), the upstate New York group did indeed give the impression, against all odds, of being a well-worn, highly professional live outfit.
The Felice Brothers’ remarkable body of songs can sometime feel flattened and inert on record, the group’s live show lets their brilliant songwriting and song-craft flourish. With a decade of touring behind them, the band only has only grown as a consistently thrilling live outfit.
The band has perfected and refined their performance of their own ramshackle scrappiness, always hinting and teasing at the idea that their set might derail and break down at any moment. But it never does. The group has created a body of work sturdy and versatile enough that they need not worry about expertly crafting a rigid set-list. Instead, the group knows when it needs to pull out a song like James Felice’s show-stopper “Whiskey in my Whiskey.” They know when they need to pull things back and deliver one of their heartrenching ballads, as Ian and James did, at various points, with songs like “Wonderful Life” and the ancient-sounding “Silver in the Shadow.” “I remember when we we wrote and recorded that song, we thought we were going to have the biggest hit of all time,” James Felice joked after performing a devastating version of the latter track.
Jenkins, who roams around the stage interacting with fellow band members as he plays washboard, percussion, and violin is still the energetic center of the group and in some ways the center of their live show. Jenkins took a rare turn on lead vocals during “Trouble,” from the band’s most recent album Favorite Waitress, a tender devotional that Jenkins delivers in his heartfelt, unpolished delivery.
For his part, Ian Felice is frequently shifting from appearing vaguely bored to becoming intensely overcome by his band’s music on stage. Sometimes, takes on old, familiar material like “Love Me Tenderly,” or even the group’s signature “Frankie’s Gun,” come in the form of a tossed-off, half sarcastic delivery from the group’s laid back frontman. But then, when it’s least expected, Felice will throw himself into a guitar solo or a unexpectedly passionate verse on a song like show opener “Meadow of a Dream.”
On Wednesday evening, as part of an early special Halloween show, the band goofily invited a dozen or so members of the audience halfway through the set for a costume contest judged by the band. The winners of the contest were the Felice Brother-themed pair of women dressed up as Don King and “Iron Mike,” from “Cus’s Catskill Gym,” one of the better tracks off the group’s off-kilter, experimental 2011 record Celebration, Florida.
At this point, the Felice Brothers have gathered a small yet considerable devoted following, particularly in the extended New York City area. The band’s last few releases have been proof that the band seems content to continue pursuing their every creative impulse without much fanfare or radical gestures of transforming the band into something it hasn’t been in the past. The electronic, rythmic flourishes on Celebration, Florida may have given some narrow-minded, Americana traditionalists a startle when the record first came out a few years ago, but it’s freed up the band to expand their sonic toolbox, which has already provided tremendous results with instant-classic songs like “Saturday Night” on their most recent release. On Wednesday evening the band flaunted its easy professionalism and showed that its uncompromising, singular songbook holds up with nearly any band of the past decade.
Setlist for Felice Brothers at Brooklyn Bowl | 10/29/14
Meadow of a Dream
Where’d You Get Your Liquor
Whiskey in my Whiskey
Take This Bread
Love Me Tenderly
Cumberland Gap (traditional)
Run Chicken Run
Silver in the Shadow
Cus’s Catskill Gym
Many Rivers to Cross (Jimmy Cliff)