Conor Oberst is known for singing devastating, soul-baring lyrics in a quivering voice on songs like Bright Eyes’ “Lua.” Meanwhile, The Felice Brothers whoop and holler on drunken sing-a-longs including their “Frankie’s Gun!” and “Whiskey in My Whiskey.” Though a collaboration between Oberst and The Felice Brothers might seem unexpected at first, an e-mail interview with Oberst from New York City reveals his connection to The Felice Brothers, who will open for him and then perform as his backing band in a special show within Big Sur’s Fernwood Campground on Friday night. The show marks one of only three on a mini Golden State swing.
“I am extremely excited to play with The Felice Brothers,” Oberst says. “Since I first met them three years ago, I have felt a kinship to them both musically and personally. We decided to do this tour of California purely for the experience of it. They are all technically proficient players, but it is their soulfulness that attracted me to them the most. I once watched James Felice fall asleep in a New Orleans alley while playing his accordion. I think he was still playing in his dreams even after his hands stopped.”
With a scratchy voice that suggests he may have spent the previous evening dozing off in another alley, accordion player James Felice shares some of the similarities between his band of brothers and Oberst. “There’s a certain dirt-bag quality about his music that we really love and admire,” he says before his words become garbled in a bad cell phone connection as The Felice Brothers drive into Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Then, James Felice’s voice returns as he speaks about Oberst. “He’s a brilliant songwriter, and we respect him so much,” he says.
Oberst has a deep well of material to draw from for the Big Sur show, which ranges from his popular Bright Eyes project to his punk songs with the Desaparecidos to his recent work in the indie super group Monsters of Folk (with Mike Mogis, M. Ward and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James).
“We are planning on rehearsing a fairly wide selection of songs from my catalogue,” Oberst says. “We are just going to get together with a master list and see which ones feel right as a group. Certainly some Bright Eyes songs as well as some songs from my last couple releases with the Mystic Valley Band.”
Both Oberst and The Felice Brothers are working on new albums that will tackle new themes. Though The Felice Brothers’ past CDs are haunted with relics from American history like the cabaret dancer of “Ruby Mae” and the old Coney Island on “Ambulance Man,” their latest album will abandon that world.
“We have tried to discover and look into different areas of life,” James Felice says. “Not so much of the old timey Americana sh**.”
While Bright Eyes’ 2007 album Cassadaga was influenced by a Florida spiritualist community, Oberst says his latest work is inspired by something else. “My new songs are primarily concerned with the liberation of the mind,” he says. “Ruminations on the hopefully imminent mental jail break we, as modern humans, all so desperately need. At least I need anyway. A saw-baked-into-the-cake-type scheme.”
CONOR OBERST and THE FELICE BROTHERS play at 7pm (DJs start at 4pm) Friday, Oct. 1, in the Fernwood Campground, 30 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur. $25 plus fees. 667-2422.