The Band had Big Pink. The Felice Brothers had ... well, the Felice household, where the three future bandleaders grew up. Both homes sit in upstate New York. Coincidence? Of course. But forget the similar region of origin -- the real similarities lie in the feel of the music.
Over the last few years, The Felice Brothers have proved themselves rightful heirs of The Band's musical tradition: roots rock that begs to be enjoyed with loud friends and clinking glasses always half-full.
Brothers Ian, James and Simone Felice grew up poor in the Hudson River Valley, the sons of a carpenter. After playing at family cookouts for years, the brothers began busking in New York City subway stations. Adding longtime friend Christmas (who has since adopted the Felice surname), they recorded Through These Reins and Gone in 2006, and soon landed tours with like-minded acts such as Bright Eyes and Deer Tick.
Though the band's been called roots-rock revivalists, Felice Brothers songs don't actively reach back for influence. Barroom sing-alongs never go out of style, and theirs sound timeless, resisting trends and any real genre boundaries.
"Most people would probably disagree, but I actually feel better on the road than I do at home," says Christmas Felice, via phone from San Francisco. "I could be working, you know?" The band had just played San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival; the 11 a.m. set was "like part of a dream," says Christmas. "I was pretty much still asleep." Maybe, but the crowd was probably wide awake.
Felice Brothers shows are notoriously riotous. And one would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting drunken chorus to shout than "I put some whiskey in my whiskey, I put some heartache in my heart. I put my boots on that ol' dance floor, I put three rounds, lord, in my .44."
For the band, that party is nearly never-ending -- in October alone, there are only eight nights it won't play a show. At home, life isn't too different. Christmas lives with Ian and fiddle player Greg Farley; drummer Dave Turberville and James live nearby.
"I see all of them every day when I'm home, and every day on tour," says Christmas. "We're all each other's got. It's just one big, gigantic family."
But one Felice has gone missing from the band's musical family. Simone, the original drummer and sometime singer, split in 2009. He has since formed The Duke and the King, a band that takes the same no-bull folk-rock approach but leaves behind the grime and grit so present in The Felice Brothers' darker tunes; his music is more Crosby, Stills and Nash than The Band. Christmas says the split was almost a non-issue. "He just had to do his own thing; it wasn't that hard [to move forward]."
Just before Simone's departure, the band had created its finest work: 2009's Yonder Is the Clock. The Brothers always thrived on scrappy, lo-fi production (one album was recorded in a chicken coop), and Yonder maintained its dirty, rustic sound while sharpening the ever-present pangs of struggle, hardship and eventual redemption. The band's best qualities -- slow, beautiful, waltzing whiskey rock balanced with shit-kicking brawlers, all sung with Ian Felice's sandpaper yowl -- had come to a wonderful head.
The next Felice release, however, is "really going to surprise some people," says Christmas. "It sounds totally different."
Created over the last six months, the still-untitled album should reach fans by next year. ("We talk about the name of the record every day and fight about it," says Christmas.) For the most part, the band wrote the material in the studio instead of recording road-worn songs; the new tunes "basically came together right before our eyes," says Christmas.
"It's a totally different vibe, and not so much based on acoustic guitar. But I wouldn't call it 'rocking.'"
"Well, sometimes it rocks. There you go. There's your headline."