BY ANDY TENNILLE
43 years after Dylan plugged in, a relatively unknown group from the Catskill Mountains electrified the hallowed Newport Folk Festival with an impromptu unplugged set, standing ankle deep in mud in front of the stage where Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and Howlin' Wolf once stood.
"I'll probably never forget it," James Felice says. "It was pouring rain, and all our shit got soaked sitting on the side stage while we waited to play. The band before us played their last song without power, ‘cause the storm had knocked it out. The organizers wanted us to wait to see if the power would come back on, but we just said fuck it, let's play."
Hopping down off the front of the stage, the Felice Brothers could have played right into music critics' hands by covering "Like A Rolling Stone," the defiant anthem Dylan sang during his set in '65 backed by the Butterfield Blues Band. It would have been apropos, given the circumstances, but would have just further fanned the flames of Dylanphiles looking to dub them the next Rolling Thunder Revue.
Instead, the three brothers- Ian, Simone and James - and their friends Christmas and Farley rolled up their pants and launched into "Lonesome Valley," an old traditional gospel folk song that's been sung by everyone from the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie to Elvis Presley and Mississippi John Hurt.
"For us, the music comes from guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Skip James and Jimmie Rodgers," James says. "That's the music that we love."
On Yonder Is the Clock, the Felices' fifth studio album and follow-up to their acclaimed 2008 self-titled release, the band explores murder ballads and tales of lost love and desperation through a combination of brilliant songwriting and incredible musicianship that thrillingly straddles the line between pure Americana genius and drunken campfire dissonance. Charley Patton would be proud.
Tell me about how you guys got started.
The origins of the band are pretty simple. It was me and Ian and Simone in the beginning, playing songs we had written. We started out playing at our father's house at backyard barbecues in upstate New York, and then we took it to the streets, playing on street corners and subway stations.
What was the strangest thing you saw when you were playing in the streets?
Nothing that scarred me for life. The last time we were in New York City, we had just gotten off tour and were fuckin' broke. I think we had like $7 or $8 between all of us. So we went down to the subway to try and make some money so we could get some dinner. We found a spot that was pretty good, and we started playing. There was a big cardboard box next to us, and this homeless guy came out and yelled at us, told us we were bothering his sleep and kicked us out of there.
How much money can somebody make playing on the street on a good night?
I've heard of people raking in a grand a night. Gill Landry, who plays with Old Crow Medicine Show now, used to be in a band called the Kitchen Syncopators. They used to play in the streets of New Orleans, and he's told me stories about making a grand a day playing to tourists. We never did that. Our best was 300, maybe 400 bucks a day.
Let's talking about your new record, Yonder is the Clock. I read somewhere that it was recorded in a chicken coop at your home in upstate New York?
The last one was recorded in the coop, too. This time, the coop was in a little better condition. We put a roof on it, framed it out and put a wood stove in it, so it was a lot nicer as opposed to the first record, which was sort of tortuous.
Just really long sessions. Our neighbors were always screaming at us. When it rained, we couldn't play anymore ‘cause the coop didn't have a roof. We were basically recording outside. You can hear cars going by on the record, ‘cause we recorded right by this back road. There was a bird's nest in the rafters, so every song has birds on it. Looking back on it, it was cool, but at the time, it was really a struggle.
You've been quoted as saying that the new album is more complete than the last. How?
Besides being a difficult affair, the last album was also sort of made piecemeal. We recorded a few songs here, a few songs there. We weren't really recording a record; we were just sort of recording songs when we had time, because we knew we wanted to put something together, but we didn't know what we wanted to do. We had many, many, many songs to choose from, maybe 30 or so. We'd demo them and think them over, and then just pare them down. So it wasn't really an album, but more collecting songs over time. Just kinda slipshod.
The new album deals a lot with the idea of mortality. Did that come together as the recording process went on, or did you go in with the idea of making an album around a theme?
We just sort of realized that most of the songs that we were coming to the table with were about death, in one way or another. Once we all recognized that, we definitely steered in that direction. It made sense, because we lost people who were close to us.
Yeah, I read the open letter from your brother Simone about the loss of his child and subsequent departure from the band. Did that influence the theme of this album?
Absolutely. Simone's loss was a big part of it, and there were other things that just showed us that life is short. In that one instance, it's really, really, really short.
Simone has left the band, and I know you've got another drummer working with you now. Is this a permanent move? I know he's working on his own record now.
JF: That's what he wanted. When we started, it was just the three of us - me, Ian and Simone - and then Christmas [Clapton, bassist] and [fiddle player Chris] Farley joined. Ian has always been the songwriter, first and foremost. This band has always been about Ian's songs. I mean, I write a couple songs, and Simone's written a few songs, and Christmas and Farley have written stuff, but it's always been about Ian's songwriting. I think Simone just felt he had a lot to say with his music, and he wanted to express it. We're really excited for him, because he's an amazing songwriter. I'm really happy that he gets to do what he wants to do and make the music he wants to make. I love his music, and I think it's great. Everyone gets a double dose, you know?
What makes Ian such a compelling songwriter?
Two things: the stories that he tells are so intricate and beautiful. They're funny, they're sad, and the characters are interesting and dynamic and memorable. I love characters. I love Randy Newman and John Prine, ‘cause you just feel like you can relate to the people in their songs. Ian does that with an amazing, uncanny ability. And then he's got these beautiful melodies. The kid just has a knack for it. He does things I've never really heard anybody do before.
You guys generate an incredible amount of energy onstage during your live shows. What's the secret? Is it the whiskey?
You know what, man? It's actually not the whiskey. I thought it was whiskey for a while. A lot of us did. But whiskey is actually the enemy. Whiskey can help if you only have one or two shows, but if you have four or five or six, whiskey's not gonna help you do anything but collapse into a pile of shit on the floor.
Most of us - myself, Ian and Christmas, especially - are not really terribly outgoing people, but for some reason, when we get on that stage, we turn into different people. In the end, it's really all about reflecting the energy from the crowd. We need the crowd to be into it, or else we're fucked. It's really important to us.
I think it comes from playing in the streets coming up. When you're playing on the streets, or in the subway, you have to be energetic, or no one's gonna pay any attention to you. No one gives a fuck about the guy sitting on a crate playing the acoustic guitar in the subway. They could care less. You have to be loud, a little bit obnoxious, and you have to have a lot of energy, or else no one's gonna care. No one's gonna throw a dollar in your box unless you're really putting it out there. That's how we started playing together, so that's all we really know.