An Evening with The Felice Brothers at Skidmore College (9/12)

The Felice Brothers have performed at outdoor pavilions, shows with thousands in attendance. They’ve played to large crowds at summer festivals galore. That’s all good and fair, being the great live performers that the guys are. They are certainly suited for playing the likes of Bonnaroo and All Points West with no complaints. But, where they really belong is a place like Falstaff’s at Skidmore College, a tiny venue that was lucky enough to experience the brothers at their best Saturday night. Their ramshackle, twangy, moonshine folk definitely sounds–and for that matter, feels–best in a small, cabin-like upstate venue, where their abundant energy doesn’t have much space to escape; where every clank and pluck can rattle off the walls, and all the hollering and harmonizing can fester. With a fiddle, a guild guitar, a nice drum set, an organ, a washboard, and an accordion, the guys come together to create an undeniably raw, old-time hoedown with every show they play.

Paradoxically so, that disheveled sound is heavily refined. The Felice Brothers have captured the spirit and mood of the music they want to play, the raw and crassness of it all, and cleaned the edges up a bit, without at sacrificing the overall feeling that they convey. They sound like they spent 40 years drinking whiskey and smoking hand rolled cigarettes in damp basements, yet no member is over the age of 30. They are a continuation of who Dylan used to be, and they do a fine good job at keeping up the tradition.

Before The Brothers Felice took to the small stage of Falstaff’s, I had the pleasure of talking with with James Felice, organ/accordion player, for a few minutes. As fans from as far as New Jersey continually approached James as he sat outside finishing his cigarette before our interview, it was clear that Skidmore College–located near the Catskill Mountains in Saratoga Springs, NY–was overly privileged to have such a great band grace the campus. After a last drag, James got up and tried to pick a location to talk with me.  We walked to the dark back of the small venue, James asking “How bout over here?  An interview in the dark.”   That should provide a good enough insight into the way this young band operates. Simply put, they go with the flow… and the flow sounds pretty fucking good.

First off, thanks so much for sitting down with me.

I guess the first thing I have to ask about is the lineup change. Can you shed some light on the situation with Simone leaving for his other project, The Duke and the King, and how it has affected the band chemistry? Is there some bad blood or was it a pretty mutual, understood departure? Does he plan to return?

James Felice: Oh no not at all. He wanted to do his own thing, it was time. He’s getting married and stuff, he wanted to play the music he wanted to play and he’s doing it right now. It was good to have him, but we’ve got a great drummer right now who’s wonderful. No, no bad blood, not at all. He’s my brother, no such thing.

I’ve always wondered, and I’ve wondered this about most bands consisting of siblings, how did you guys become so creatively productive. When did you guys start playing and writing together? Is it ever hard to be in a band with your brothers?

JF: It’s like anybody else, you know. It just happens to be your brother so I guess we’re more sort of in tune with what we’re like and what we’re good at and stuff. But you know, we’re friends too, so we decided we wanted to play music together we just happened to be brothers, it just sort of worked out like that. Not till we were older that we really started playing together at all.

Do you guys get into a lot of fights because you’re brothers?

JF: Fuck yeah, we get into fights. Everybody gets into fights. You know, you got a brother a best friend or your fuckin’ wife or a girlfriend, you get into fights. We get a long pretty good, though.

Mark Twain seems to be present in your work, mostly in the title of your latest album, Yonder is the Clock, and in Simone’s band name, The Duke and the King, where does Twain’s writing fit in with the music of the Felice Brothers? There’s kinda that old time mountain folk vibe in your music.

JF: Yeah, absolutely you know. He’s not really old time, he’s just an amazing writer and he had awesome observations. Towards the end of his life he became a very negative person.  His daughter died and he was very pessimistic and “Yonder is the Clock,” that line is from a short story called, “The Mysterious Stranger” which was a very negative sort of outlook about how god just sort of toys with people and doesn’t really give a shit. Which is sort of deep and is not necessarily what we believe or anything, but it just seemed like a good thing to use. But for Mark—and all those great American writers, like um Hemingway and Faulkner, who came around later—it’s just all very inspirational, some of the best artists in the world, and I think we read a lot of them when we were growing up and it sort of influenced what we like. Everything we grew up with influenced us in some way, you know, whether it’s Mark Twain or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or anything. It’s all there somewhere.

New York isn’t really heard in your music sonically, but you seem to have a lot of NY pride (“Penn Station”), wearing Yankees hats while playing, etc. Is it fun to come back to this area to do a show like this?

JF: Yeah, I love playing shows at home. And as for the sound, you know, it’s definitely not New York City sound, but it’s Catskill Mountain Music. And Catskill Mountains are a part of you know, the Appalachians and Woodstock and all that shit. And you know, New York embodies a lot of things, it doesn’t necessarily have to sound like, you know, a Brooklyn indie band or hip hop.

Do you guys feel more connected with upstate New York or with the city?

JF: Oh, yeah. I mean, yeah. I mean both. You know, Upstate’s the home that’s where we grew up, that’s where we live, so. New York City is our city home. But, anywhere you grow up is going to influence your sound.

If I were to describe your sound to somebody I might tell them that you guys were like a sort of Basement Tapes revival. Do you think it’s safe to say you draw a lot of inspiration from Dylan and the Band or do you guys sort of get sick of the comparisons?

JF: I’ve never heard the Basement Tapes, so I don’t know what that sounds like. But, we love Dylan and the band of course, you know, Dylan I think specifically is one of our favorite songwriters. He’s brilliant, obviously. He’s the best. So, yeah, definitely. We’re influenced by the same music they were influenced by, the early American music. The Basement Tapes thing I don’t really understand, cause I never heard it, but . . . if that’s what you think it sounds like that’s cool. If you like The Basement Tapes, if you don’t then, you know.

It’s not a sore subject, though for you guys?

JF: Nah, fuck it, I don’t care. I mean, no one wants to be compared to anything. Everyone wants to feel like they’re original in some way, I know we’re not, obviously, but no one really is. Compare us to anyone you want, I say.

Subsequently, you’ve played with Levon Helm, you’ve been at his midnight rambles… what’s it like to play with somebody like Levon Helm, having spent so much time listening to his music as an aspiring musician. Must be a pretty surreal thing.

JF: It’s a wonderful thing, it’s an amazing thing. It’s um, it really is. It’s inspirational, and it’s humbling, cause you realize how much better they are than you. And it was just cool that he had us there, you know. And I think hopefully we’re going to do it again soon. But you know, it was fun man. He loves music, he loves the same kind of music we love. So it was just fun to be a part of it, you know even in a small way.


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