Q: What do you get when you combine five hyperactive Americana musicians straight out of the Catskill Mountains, copious amounts of booze, and a stage measuring roughly 10 feet by 10 feet?
A: Assorted debauchery, off-key singalongs, and the wanton destruction of property.
And a damn good time.
The Felice Brothers invaded Rumba Cafe in Columbus on April 28, bringing their homegrown brand of classic American songcraft in tow. The loose gig felt like an impromptu backyard party with family and friends; fitting, since the band got its start playing porch concerts during barbecues at their father's house.
There was no opening act, and no need for one. Since 2006, The Felice Brothers (Ian Felice on guitar/vocals, James Felice on accordion/keyboard/vocals, Christmas Clapton on bass, Dave Turbeville on drums, and Greg Farley on fiddle/washboard/kitchen sink) have released five independent or limited albums – one of them recorded in a converted chicken coop – and two major label records. The band opened appropriately with “Greatest Show On Earth” from 2008's The Felice Brothers, igniting a slow burn of songs about love, loss and alcohol that would soon erupt into a full-on blaze.
The band launched into “Frankie's Gun!” - perhaps their most-beloved tune - eight songs in. Farley, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, broke out the washboard much to the crowd's delight. From there the insanity only escalated. James Felice shouldered the accordion for “Goddamn You, Jim,” then introduced the next piece as “a very serious song with serious themes.”
Its title: “Whiskey In My Whiskey.” Although James technically handled lead vocals, in truth the audience took the reins.
The Felice Brothers made no attempt to contain their youthful vigor within the confines of Rumba Cafe's ridiculously small stage. James and Farley routinely swapped instruments; at one point, James stepped off the stage to play an organ that simply wouldn't fit on the riser; Ian repeatedly leaped onto the bass drum while playing guitar, swatted at the cymbals with his bare hands and toppled mic stands; “Run Chicken Run” featured some interpretive dance from Ian during a spirited accordion break by his brother.
It all boiled over during set-closer “Helen Fry.” Busted accordion keys ended up on the ground while Ian dragged screaming feedback out of his guitar by aiming a microphone directly at the pickups. Meanwhile, Farley wielded his washboard like a sledgehammer, absolutely beating the shit out of Turbeville's drum cymbals. It was an electrifying scene of primal, savage release.
Incredibly, the band managed to return to the stage for a one-song encore, performing Townes Van Zandt's “Two Hands.” As Ian sang, “I got two hands, I wanna clap my hands together... And I ain't gonna think about trouble anymore,” it felt like a musical tonic extinguishing the embers of fury that had just ravaged the stage.