Listening to the earthy, earnest songs of The Felice Brothers, it’s easy to hear the band’s roots and the influence of its journey. Palenville, N.Y., is a hamlet of about 1,400 residents, nestled at the base of the Catskill Mountains near the Kaaterskill Falls. The fictional character Rip Van Winkle was supposed to have hailed from the town. It was there that brothers Ian, James and Simone Felice, the poor sons of a carpenter, grew up and began playing music. The brothers often held neighborhood jam sessions and played regularly during family backyard barbecues.
They eventually moved to New York City, busking their special blend of old-time folk-rock in the subway stations. The brothers kept playing and recording through lean times, which included sharing a tiny apartment and even sometimes living in a small school bus. The band was discovered performing at a growers’ market in Brooklyn by freelance music writer Gabe Soria, who helped the guys wrangle a record deal in England. By 2008, the band had five albums and a short tour in the U.K. under its belt. Garnering attention at music festivals—the Newport Folk Festival and Bonnaroo included—eventually led to national tours with Conor Oberst, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Dave Matthews Band.
The Felice Brothers’ sound is old-fashioned and fresh. The band’s sixth release, Yonder Is the Clock, was named BBC’s 2009 Country Album of the Year, but the country label doesn’t do justice to the music. The soulful, romance-and-heartache sound of old country is present, while the soundtrack to some gritty, back-room card game looms. Mixed in is a pinch of glitzy vaudeville. Sweet harmonies and a violin or occasional horn lend complexity to folksy guitar.
The Felice Brothers’ music would fit equally well on a dusty front porch or a circus sideshow tent. Many songs create worlds of Americana lore and stylized characters, spinning tales of dames with guns, drug deals gone wrong, bounty hunting and murdered lovers. When frontman Ian Felice delivers whiskey-voiced lyrics about protecting someone from the devil with his Smith & Wesson, he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.
Nowadays the band consists of Ian Felice, James Felice, Christmas Clapton, Greg Farley and David Turbeville, with Simone Felice acting as a collaborating writer. They have recorded albums in a leaky, abandoned Shakespeare theater and in a chicken-coop-cum-studio. The band’s seventh album—Mix Tape, released in March—retains the vulnerability and most of the grit of the earlier stuff. Catch some tracks from the new album in person when The Felice Brothers plays in Santa Fe on Wednesday.