Body language can be half the show.
A case in point is the Felice Brothers’ Saturday night set at The State Room in Salt Lake City.
There was the fully-immersed-in-rhythm swaying of brothers Ian and James Felice, who, at least physically, resemble siblings the way Laurel and Hardy do.
The waifish lead guitarist/singer Ian — making the most of his electrical wiriness — rocked back and forth, head cocked left, bending soulfully over the mike. The accordion — and keyboard — unleashing James, whose generous dimensions perfectly complement his stage presence, acted as the epicenter of an hour-and-a-half-long quake. His rich voice, like the sound of a tuba, an unlikely companion to Ian’s expressive rasp.
There was the Beastie Boyish gesturing of Greg Farley, whose primary role is fiddler, though he just as enthusiastically abuses a washboard, pounds a drum, unleashes a guitar lick, and (least successfully) hogs the mike for the duration of a song.
The bassist, Christmas Clapton, was the least animated, but, along with the drummer, Dave Turbeville, no less responsible for the roundly joyful physicality of the live performance.
The Felice Brothers capture the sensibility of the attentive vagabond — who knows busking as well as baptisms, who knows how to tie together black eyes and red eyes and love — in songs that can be plaintive and raw, precise and melancholy, and yet never despondent. And they do so as effectively by way of subdued melody as by raucous cacophony.
Their albums feel like they were made on a train, paused on a side track at the depot. A train, which has witnessed the stuff Americana is made of. Their live show, by extension, is that train barreling full-steam ahead.
On Saturday, the tracks were cut freestyle, linking blues, roots rock and folk, linking the Catskills, from where the brothers hail, with the Wasatch Front.
Drawing more on recent work from their, so far, rather modest output (their first album, “Iantown,” was released in 2005, and they have perhaps forty originals to cull from) The Felice Brothers show they have enough depth to keep a positive charge in the air.
Ian may be the de facto frontman, and his delivery was the most haunting and memorable – especially on songs such as “Wonderful Life” and “Marlborough Man,” where his voice wasn’t forced to compete with other instruments. But James provides a fine counterpoint with his baritone, which is well-suited to telling tall tales in the best sea shanty fashion. No wonder he’s the one treating the audience to “Whiskey in My Whiskey.”
Song after song, rough-cut characters abound, their fates unglamorous and bleak, and are dispensed with without ado. Old West saloon-style themes crop up. Lovers who are armed to the teeth meet for a date. Daily troubles are celebrated with impish irony through choruses such as “Ooo, happy days are here.”
The songwriting is taut; echoes of ‘60s and ‘70s icons inevitable. The lyrics may rarely say something new, but they reveal an idiom that seems genuine. And, devoid of cheap consolations, they express things that ring true.
The gig was not-so-neatly book-ended by styles not everyone could pull off: The opening song climaxing in a hip-hop chant, the closing one dissolving in a cryptic chorus about a “stormy Russian” who’s “a master of disguise.”
Considering the very palpable notion that the Felice Brothers love to share their music in the spirit of camaraderie, it is fitting to summarize the effect of the night with the refrain from their song “Take This Bread”: “I ain’t got a lot, but all I got / You’re welcome to it / ‘Cause I’m alright if you’re alright.”
Alright. And right on.