Friday, August 14, 2009
James Felice Interviewed: Nashville City Paper
The New York folk and Americana ensemble The Felice Brothers have appeared in Nashville before, but they openly admit that Thursday's appearance at Riverfront Park is something quite special and unusual.
First, they're part of the heralded multi-artist event being billed as "The Big Surprise Tour" along with Old Crow Medicine Show and The Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch and Justin Townes Earle. Second, they're doing a rare outside show, and that raises the stakes both sonically and personally for the band.
"We don't do a lot of outside dates other than the occasional festival," James Felice said. "You always have to think about a lot of other things when you're not in an arena, and especially when you're playing in a spot as big as Riverfront Park. The weather might go haywire, you've got to think more about projection and volume, and your set list might change. Plus, you're playing in Nashville, one of the places with more great musicians than probably anywhere else in the country, especially in terms of the type of music that we play.”
Despite the challenges it poses, the high stakes are worth it to play alongside the A-list group of musicians who are both their friends and their inspiration, James said.
“We had been talking with Old Crow about doing some things together for a long tour, and the idea for a big type of traveling revue, where audiences got the chance to see a lot of performances for one price, seemed to be a great idea. When you think about how things have been out on the road for a lot of groups, it also makes really good economic sense,” James said. “But on top of all that, we're a big fan of all these performers. So far, the shows and the vibe have been fantastic. It's something we're definitely happy to be a part of and to participate in, and it's another sign things are improving for us as a band."
Considering that The Felice Brothers were formerly playing in a New York subway station, they've certainly come a long way. The original group of James, Ian and Simon Felice, along with family friend Greg Farley (washboard/fiddle) and the bassist known only as Christmas, became well known on the East Coast for a demonstrative brand of original numbers and reworked vintage blues, folk, country and old-time numbers.
James' instrumental versatility (accordion, organ and piano), plus the harmonies and interaction with Ian and Simon's fiery drumming, generated plenty of interest among the East Coast folk underground.
Manager Paul Schiavo landed the group a series of dates in England in 2007. The resultant publicity, coupled with critical praise for the self-released CD Through These Reins and Gone helped finally secure a label deal in 2008 with Team Love Records.
Adventures of the Felice Brothers Vol. 1 further propelled the band’s popularity, along with 2008 appearances at such events as Bonnaroo, Newport, Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble and other rock and folk festivals both in America and overseas.
But in addition to their participation on the Big Surprise Tour, it's a new CD Yonder is the Clock, released in April, that's finally getting The Felice Brothers some mainstream recognition.
"This is really the first time that I think we've tried to get into the whole art and process of making a record," James said. "What we've always heard from people who've heard the other things we've done is that we sound so much different in person and we do so many other things that don't necessarily find their way onto the recordings.
"So this time we were very conscious about everything. We wanted to make this as close to the way we sound in person and on stage as possible. We didn't do all that much overdubbing, and we didn't do a lot of takes with the vocals. I think it's really about as close to being a spontaneous record as we can make. We're all very happy with the way it turned out."
There's a host of subjects and topics covered on Yonder is the Clock. The band does murder ballads and weather tunes, numbers about baseball and life on the road, old and new pieces about romantic triumphs and failures. The singing is joyous and energetic, the playing resourceful, engaging, yet tight and disciplined.
Whether they're looking backward ("Penn Station," "Memphis Flu") or toward the future ("Rise and Shine," "Katie Dear"), The Felice Brothers are displaying the kind of rollicking spirit and musical adventurousness on disc that's the cornerstone of their live performances.
James adds that there's one style of music the Brothers enjoy that might surprise even their most avid followers.
"We're all big hip-hop fans," James said. "Especially Jay-Z, but we also like Biggie Smalls. It's something we listen to a lot when we're on the bus. But so far we haven't figured out a way to get that into the live show, but we're thinking about it and working on it."
They've undergone a musical adjustment recently, as Simon has now left the band and started his own group, The Duke and the King, which issued a debut CD Aug. 4.
Besides the various tour dates, The Felice Brothers will be on the road most of this year and well into 2010. They have another European visit scheduled down the line, and James notes that the writing process is always underway.
"The way that we work, we're always writing songs," James said. "It's an ongoing process, because all of us really love different things, and constantly we'll hear something that inspires us and we try to work it into a song. I think our new release will be a lot different from this one, because we really don't even do the songs the same way from night to night."