Live Review: The Felice Brothers At Mississippi Studios Portland, OR 4/29/11
With their ever-growing popularity and relatively manic tour schedule, I felt lucky to catch my first live Felice Brothers show at Mississippi Studios here in Portland last weekend. While James Felice admitted a few songs in that it had taken a red eye driving marathon for the band to make it to Portland from San Fran in time for the show, you never would have known otherwise. Quite frankly, I was blown away and can state with full confidence that it was the best show I’ve seen in a long while. Sure, as a band that has an awful lot of songs about whiskey they tend to attract some heavy drinkers (rowdy crowds do not exist in Portland, so it really was a sight to see) and sure, a fight broke out after about the third song started, coincidentally, by a guy that I had already predicted was going to be trouble earlier in the night (which caused an annoying halt in the show and prompted even Ian Felice to say “C’mon guys, this is Portland”) but everything else was flawless from note one.
In fact, all of the drama and drunkenness faded into mere background noise for me as the boys hit the ground running by playing two of the most noteworthy songs from their soon to be released fourth album Celebration, Florida. The first, “Fire At The Pageant,” only further confirmed my desire of owning a video recording device of some sort in the future because I don’t even think I can fully describe how amazing this song was live. Set up against a thumping bass drum background with a shouting call back chorus and eerie lyrics, “Fire At The Pageant” is a true standout among the new songs. After its incendiary completion, I saw more than one person, myself included, turn to their friends with a look that said, “What the hell was that? I’m pretty sure I can’t feel my face.”
(For some reason the site will no longer let me put up vids with my posts. I’m using the old embed codes and everything, but they still won’t show up when I go to publish. Please feel free to watch the amazing, officially unofficial vid for “Fire At The Pageant”.
The second was “Ponzi,” the song from Celebration that the band has chosen to pre-release and which many of you have probably already checked out through links on ND or Spin.com. Rather than describing it as a departure, a descriptor that reviewers have latched onto in the past month, I would describe “Ponzi” as an ambitious leap forward in the band’s sound. The onstage delivery of it last Friday still featured Ian Felice’s sleepy, sexy, croak but set against an impressive wall of sound that featured distorted guitar, heavy drums, James Felice’s jangly piano, and Greg Farley’s masterful Akai sample skills. In fact, from standing right in front of him the whole night, it was Farley that perhaps impressed me the most throughout the night. As the band’s fiddle player/DJ/washboard player/hype man, Farley was all over the stage that night delivering beats, choruses, and helping to whip the crowd into the frenzied dancing mass that it became. Not only did this make me think that Farley must have been a huge influence on the recording of the new record, it also made me think about how much I appreciate the uniqueness of The Felice Brothers as a band in general. Not only does the new album feature a hauntingly distorted, electrified, and even at times electronic sound (the ending of the album version of “Ponzi” could easily be mistaken for a Kanye West song. No really, check it out), the entire Felice catalog is an eclectic mix of musicality. Drunken barroom meets Pentecostal church revival? Yep, they’ve done that. History laden, upstate New York folk meets Southern cabaret? Yep. Even Mississippi Studios seemed a little weary to pin them down when faced with the task of describing the band for their website. They ended up with “experimental folk rock.”
(Listen to “Ponzi” here: http://www.spin.com/articles/exclusive-felice-brothers-go-electro-ish)
Five word pigeonholes aside, the true draw of The Felice Brothers for me is the fact that, whatever their formula, it works and it works well in a way that, I believe, no other band could pull off.
For the majority of the show, the band stuck to featuring their new songs. Despite anyone’s status as a true music scholar (which all of us undoubtedly are, right? hehe) I think we’re all pretty guilty of wanting to hear our old favorites when it comes to live shows. I mean, even with the absolute beauty of Steve Earle’s Townes album, last time I saw him live, at one point all I could think was “can we please turn this mother out for just a few minutes with some ‘Copperhead Road??’” But, between the aforementioned face melting and the absolute beauty and longing of a song like “River Jordan,” I was in want of nothing from the previous albums and I can’t remember the last time I left a show made up of mostly new songs so happy. Of course, to everyone’s delight, the boys did bring out many old favorites such as “Run, Chicken, Run,” “Whiskey In My Whiskey,” and “Love Me Tenderly.”
I can already tell that people are going to be on the fence about the new record. The usual teams that form whenever a band tries to take their sound in a new direction will form. Some people will mourn the loss of the good old days and deride the band for plugging in a bit more while others, myself included, will be completely blown away by the lyrical maturity and masterful layering of sounds on Celebration. Judging by the number of people I saw walking out with advanced copies the other night, I think it’s safe to say that the yay’s far outweigh the nays at this point. You can decide for yourself in a couple of days. Celebration, Florida’s official release date is set for May 10th.