Monday, June 1, 2009

Seattle Times Article on the Felice Brothers

Felice Brothers, those barstool bards, are heading to the Tractor

The Felice Brothers' new album, "Yonder Is the Clock," is about an hour's worth of modern Americana. The band plays at Seattle's Tractor Tavern June 4, 2009.

By Jonathan Zwickel

Special to The Seattle Times

The Felice Brothers play at Seattle's Tractor Tavern June 4, 2009.
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The Felice Brothers play at Seattle's Tractor Tavern June 4, 2009.


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Concert preview

Felice Brothers
With Willy Mason, 9 p.m. Thursday, The Tractor, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; $12-$14 (866-468-7623 or; info: 206-789-3599 or

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The Felice Brothers:


The Felice Brothers never watched much TV.

You can tell right away from listening to their music: Rather than era-appropriate nostalgia or references to pop culture effluvium, their songs are stories of broken-down boxers, honest criminals, cabaret queens, Cooperstown, Penn Station, the devil, Doris Day, Ty Cobb.

They bite off chunks of American history that would choke a lesser band, but in the mouths of these three 20-something brothers and their two childhood pals, they take on the gravity of literature or cinema. But in no way is the band precious or pretentious; theirs is the literature of the barstool bard, the cinema of the street corner.

"We don't know [expletive] about pop culture, me and my brothers," says James Felice, on his cell while driving the band's Winnebago back to their practice space in New Paltz, a small, sylvan berg in upstate New York. "People throw references at us, TV shows and music that's going on today, and we don't know anything. And I kinda like it that way."

Proof that old is new, that history repeats, is all over the Felice Brothers' new album, "Yonder Is the Clock" (Team Love Records). The title is a phrase lifted from Mark Twain's final, unfinished work that suggests the incessant march of time.

Then there's the song called "Memphis Flu" that goes "The Memphis flu is in our bed/And it will surely kill us dead/If we don't turn away from our shame." Sound like an allegory ripped from the headlines? It's a cover of a church song from the 1930s.

Accordion, fiddle, acoustic guitar, bass, organ, washboard, drums — the Felice Brothers' accompaniment is simple, the kind you could play around a campfire (where James first picked up a guitar), in a chicken coop (disused and renovated, where they prefer to record) or a subway station (in New York, where the band got its start).

The brothers sing in unison but don't exactly harmonize; Ian Felice's ragged, nasal voice — not unlike early Dylan's — usually takes lead. Dignified and vagabond, lyrically deft and sympathetic, the Felice Brothers' music is classically American stuff.

"If a story is timeless then it's timeless, it can be applied to any time," James says. "Good music is good music — doesn't matter if it's played on a guitar, by an orchestra, or on a computer."

"Yonder is the Clock" is a more subdued affair than the Brothers' two previous albums, which featured full-throated, posse-sung choruses and raucous arrangements. Those songs are still here — check the boozy rapture of "Run Chicken Run," a blaze of anachronism that name checks both the Virginia Rag and Adderall — balanced by sad, beautiful ruminations like "Katie Dear" and "Boy from Lawrence County."

"The idea of the record sort of necessitated that we tone down, but we haven't really calmed down on stage," James says. "We're not, like, more demure people."

In fact, on stage they're spirited to the point of recklessness, tearing a page from the punk-rock playbook. For the finale of the Felice Brothers' triumphant set at Austin's South by Southwest music festival this past March, fiddler Greg Farley tackled Simone Felice's drum kit, taking both drums and drummer almost off the back of the stage.

The band spent more than 150 days on the road last year, building a fan base one show at a time.

In their emphasis on live performance — and in their unhinged energy — there's a kinship with other forerunners of modern Americana such as the Avett Brothers Two Gallants, and the Hackensaw Boys. The road — the most vivid symbol of America — served as inspiration for "Yonder Is the Clock," and it continues to as the band grows.

"That's sort of our process right now," James says. "Kill yourself on the road for a month, come home, spend a little time writing, recording, then get back on the road."

Sounds grueling, which is a good thing for the Felice Brothers. Weariness and resignation are part of what makes the music so rich and rewarding.

"It's a marriage," James says. "Being in a band is like being married to a bunch of dudes. Ups and downs. Mostly ups, which is why we're still married."