Finishing up a coast-to-coast tour with their return to the Big Apple on September 13th, this crew of six (including three actual brothers named Felice) played a set that mostly drew off their new, limited-release tour album, Adventures of the Felice Brothers, Vol. 1, but still with some off their debut from earlier this year, Tonight At the Arizona. While Arizona invoked a sixties/seventies sad Bob Dylan, the new material was much more up-tempo, creating a kind of barroom saloon stomp that might not have been perfectly fitting for the venue, with much of the audience seated at nightclub-style tables and chairs, but it was all unbelievably fun.
The extended Felice Brothers opened things up with a shambolic sing-a-long, proclaiming, “I used to lie / I used to cheat!” Perhaps a little too simple, it served very well as an opener. Things got much sadder when the band launched into Arizona’s “Hey Hey Revolver”, the singer saying, “This is a song about doing criminal acts to support your family.” But even then, there was a little humor injected, as he added, “It’s an observational piece, really – I didn’t do it! Don’t blame me for trying to do it!” It was a pattern that would reoccur throughout the evening: jumpin’ & jivin’ on newer pieces, somber and emotional on Arizona ones.
The best symbol of their new attitude was the incredible “Frankie’s Gun”, an old-fashioned blues stomp that had The Living Room a-rockin’. There were some sadder new pieces later on in the night, including a darker one in honor of a writer who was there that evening, and a touching one about an architect and Penn Station, but they still possessed some irony, or uplift. “Frankie” was followed, for instance, by a wry new “song about cowboys who make shoes” (“It’s not a joke…”), and spirits were most definitely raised as the whole crowd sang “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” the refrain to a later old-time revival-meets-labor activism-meets-rollicking blues number.
The middle of The Felice Brothers’ set was almost entirely dominated by new pieces, except for the very powerful “Ballad of Lou the Welterweight”. Upon hearing the chorus line of “Lou”, “Powder your nose / Pull off your pantyhose / Let me love you from behind / My darling…”, one might think this was humor, but in fact, the whole number is actually a tribute to Grandpa Felice’s, a boxer who died in the ring (“right across the Queens Bridge in 1971”). And the penultimate “Mercy” could make a grown man cry with its sad sorrow. The only exception to this Arizona rule was the night’s last piece, “T For Texas”, which brought back the down-home hootenanny to finish things out.
The Felice Brothers have a real backwoods feel, putting what they can find all together, as best they can, and making it work. One brother was playing an accordion (though it was a new one…), and someone else alternated between fiddle, harmonica, and washboard. The drummer had a broken leg, but could still get up and dance on his crutches. Most of them had some serious facial hair. In many ways, The Felice Brothers are a throwback. But actually, they’re just bringing it back.