[16 July 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
LEXINGTON, Ky. — The trouble started right about sundown, just as the Felice Brothers took the stage. That’s when the power went out.
Thus, the coarse, celebratory music of the ensemble — a family band from upstate New York that blends modern and Appalachian folk, zydeco, blues, primitive country and more into a Band-like roots-music quilt with sometimes-punkish leanings — was left without any power.
Well, the Felices always have power to spare. They just had no amplification to shove behind it when facing a hearty Friday-evening crowd in Lexington.
But industrious natives of New York’s Catskills that they are, the brothers redefined the term unplugged and played guitars, washboards and drums right in the middle of the crowd in the instruments’ natural, unamped state.
Sure, if you were more than 10 feet from the players, you couldn’t hear a thing. But if you were in front and at the feet of the Felice Brothers, the sense of immediacy and ingenuity surrounding busted-up spirituals like “Saved” and “Reverend Mr. Black” was overpowering.
The Felices overcame the blackout conditions so readily that one had to think the band was accustomed to such emergencies. Sure enough, it had dealt with a similar outage a month earlier at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival.
“I guess all that prepared us pretty well for Lexington,” accordionist James Felice said. “We’ve dealt with things like that before. We just sensed that the crowd wanted to hear our music, so we worked things out the only way we could. I mean, it’s the crowd’s show, after all. Not ours.”
The band formed when the three eldest of seven Felice children (James, percussionist/vocalist Simone and guitarist/vocalist Ian) teamed with two family pals (bassist Christmas Clapton and fiddler Greg Farley) and began playing rural-flavored folk, blues and country at family barbecues. From there, they found steady work by busking in subway stations near Brooklyn and New York’s Greenwich Village.
“Where we grew up was just this poor community in upstate New York, a place pretty indistinguishable from, say, any sort of small Appalachian town,” James Felice said. “The countryside is really the same. So was the poverty.
“Musically, our inspirations came more from the radio. There were some great songwriters and great bands that came from the Catskills. But most of the music we listened to growing up came from the South — from Mississippi, Alabama and, of course, Kentucky. We were really into the music that was going on down in your part of the world.”
The band began recording and releasing independent recordings in 2006. 2007’s “Adventures of The Felice Brothers, Vol. 1,” was recorded live to two tracks in a chicken coop.
A self-titled album last year for the Team Love label began to widen the word on the Felices, making the band a staple of jam-band clubs and festivals. The notoriety increased after a brief tour last winter with fellow acoustic-roots revisionist troupe Old Crow Medicine Show. In April came a new album, “Yonder Is the Clock.” The title comes from the deadly forewarning of a fortune teller in Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger.”
“The other records we did were done very much in piecemeal fashion,” Felice said. “We would record a couple of songs whenever we had the time. Here, we knew we actually were going to have the time to make an album, a real collection of songs.
“We also knew we were going to be making a record that people might actually get to hear. On the last few records, we didn’t really know what the hell was going to happen with them.”
One thing the Felices can count on happening in August is a nine-city trek dubbed the Big Surprise Tour, named after “Yonder Stands the Clock’s” sleepy, summery leadoff tune. Completing the bill will be Old Crow Medicine Show, the David Rawlings Machine featuring Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle.
“We were really excited when the idea first came up, even though we didn’t even know if it would even be possible to get everybody together,” James Felice said of the upcoming tour. “It will be an honor to play with these folks.
“Tours like this tell us that we’re reaching more people. We’re definitely doing much better than we were a year or two ago. Of course, we always want to be able to play in front of more people and maybe even make a dollar or two along the way because we’re all still so friggin’ broke.
“Still, this is an amazing job to have. I don’t mind being a little bit poor if I can just keep doing this for the rest of my life. But the more people that hear our music, the better.”