This Time the Storm Brought the Felice Brothers, And They Brought the Deluge
The last time I tried to see the Felice Brothers, along with my wife and some friends, it was a number of years ago, and the band was steered away due to hurricane warnings in nearby Virginia Beach. So, I waited all this time, but to see them now necessitated Greyhound and an overnight in Richmond. All of this in pouring rain. Storms came relentlessly, but this time, in rode the Felice Brothers in their sturdy black, mid-size Mercedes bus.
I met others at the full-house show at Richmond’s wonderful, intimate music venue, The Camel, who had been waiting years to see them, or see them again. As I sat by the stage during the show, in rapt attention, I found tears were in my eyes. Without responding to any song in particular, I realized the tears came from the overall intensity the Felice Brothers brought. Their stomping, intense songs were communications from the deep realms that surround us.
Talk about “a good time was had by all.” That took on new meaning as I looked around at the broad smiles, dancing bodies, intense contemplation of some heavy lyrics and complex arrangements, and a young man with long black hair leaping up-and-down to attempt matching the brothers’ almost cosmic intensity.
One fan gave James a lighted candle in a glass holder to put on his trusty keyboard. Others, at one point, began throwing money on the stage, but not without a price tag. Some dollars came with song requests, while others were thanks for favorites already performed. Toward the end of the show, Ian leaned down and gathered their “take,” saying quietly, “People are throwing money?! Well, if anyone wants to throw money up here, we won’t discourage them.”
Off and Running
From the opening lines of the first song, they were off and running. With a song choice nodding to the weather, bringing the storm inside, Ian began: “Plunder, plunder, rain and thunder. Lightning split my brain asunder./They say that only 80 men own more than half the world/I dreamed they spread it around/ended up in a mental ward” They got humor too, right? Satire underlies much of their lyrical work. To begin the night’s show, there were politics, humor and content that reflected the moment.
Sweeping down from the North – Palenville, New Paltz, and thereabouts – in the Catskills – they took Richmond by storm, so to speak, much like Union soldiers had, but this time without the Confederates burning Shockoe Bottom, this time to welcome arms. That’s a pretty elaborate analogy, concert to Civil War, but the show was intense!
Reflecting on the meaningless proliferation of industrial excess and extreme profit limited to a precious few, the song, appropriately titled Plunder, was rendered with great emotion. “Every time I try to organize./I turn around, and my captain dies./They got machines that make machines/ and those machines make more machines.” While he sings and plays, Ian stomps his right, booted foot to the stage, then again, lifts it higher, and his foot comes down louder. “Plunder, plunder, rain and thunder/Greed will split the world asunder” The foot again, higher, down, louder.
The young man near me in the direct front of Ian is already absorbed, beginning to leap to the beat. And, Ian, absorbed, concentrated, sucked into the stage’s floor with his beating boot and into the depths of his beat-up and distinctive-sounding electric guitar, sang on. His guitar, quite large and bronze-colored, appeared on its last legs, but sounded like orchestra, theatre, and bottomless pit.
Light from the Dark
The concert, as it continues, is a bit like free-falling from an airplane. And, this was still only the beginning. Light coming out of the dark. The songs, many of them start dark and may continue that path. But then lightness, a bit of hope, often emerges, either literally, in the lyrics, or embedded in the feeling and/or overall meaning the song evokes. Or, light emerges from the jamming joy of the melody and the unabashed, wide-open playing of the music.
Songs like Triumph 73, following later in the night’s set list, show a not-perfect but enthusiastic future. You add some screaming fiddle and drop-dead bass, and pretty soon you’re feeling pretty good:
“So long, Sue/Though I know not what I’ll do/Ain’t gonna join the marine corps/Ain’t gonna fight no rich man’s war/There’s too many boys/ gone down that way before/ I’d rather be/On my Triumph ’73/ Now I’m passing over the planes/95 in the passing lane/Chasing the wind/Despite it driving away”
I’d add here that James related that a number of their friends that they grew up with in their working class community went off to war, often with unpleasant results, perhaps explaining in part the anti-war sentiment of a number of their songs.
James Felice said of their new album’s title and title song, Life in the Dark: “The songs maybe start with a darkness. We are all walking around in the dark. And yet, we are searching for the light. Our brains are the avenues for it.” Our brains are the avenues for it.” Dig that. Is that an astonishing sentence?” These brothers are smarter than the average bear.
Their current reading matter ranges from the Holocost (Ian) to evolutionary biology (James). Brother Simone, who left the band for other pursuits, appears to be the same, judging from his musical projects and books he’s written. Their parents are a carpenter, once hippie, (father) and school bus driver (mother). They would appear to be singular sources of intellect for their boys.
At first, they were horrified, James said about the boys becoming professional musicians, spending their lives on tour. “But now they’re totally on-board, pretty much,” James added, “sometimes my mom wishes we’d gone into something where we’d make more money and such.”
“Ian, who writes most of the songs,” James continued, “is very direct about it. He’s influenced by what he reads. In this case, The Diary of Anne Frank. He’s relating to the ideas coming from the book.”
“He seems to fully experience it on stage,” I said, “each time he performs it.”
“He doesn’t fake it,” James replied.
“And yet, in briefly meeting him after the show, I felt warmth and genuineness in the brief contact,” I said.
“He’s a sweet guy,” brother James replied.
The musically self-taught Felice Brothers’ body of work has long hung in my imagination as a thoroughly unique and fresh contribution to our musical culture. I had a sense of the dynamic, maybe mind-blowing quality of their live performances from accounts of a friend and a couple of YouTube videos. But, it was even more so when I finally experienced the live manifestation.
And to meet them, especially some extended contact/conversation with James, has shown me another Felice dimension. James strikes me as a thoughtful, insightful, young man, with wide-ranging intellect, especially for someone who didn’t attend college. He’s uniquely generous and warm as well. His latest obsession, as he calls it, is his reading and explorations into evolutionary biology. He has a driving desire to understand genetics and molecular structure.
James describes Ian as a less out-going personality than himself. However, as I said, I met Ian very briefly but was touched that he made a special effort to come over to meet me, not knowing who I was. I’ve realized that here too is a rich, varied talent, with skills in the visual in addition to the musical/literary arts. He has a degree as a painter from the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Pratt, as an aside, is a place where I, many years ago, when staying in a Pratt dorm with a girlfriend, went to an on-campus Warhol movie, recently released. We were sitting there in the small auditorium/theatre when in walked a large group of glamorously dressed, heavily made-up Warhol Superstars, Holly Woodlawn, Joe Dallesandro, Ultra Violet, et al, to see the movie. Earlier, we’d accidentally caught Charlie Mingus, mid-afternoon, rehearsing around a table in the Village Vanguard, yelling at his band as they went. From that time on, I’ve always been fascinated to meet someone from Pratt.
Ian has produced a series of Felice Brothers post cards with some very cool, clever, and often funny drawings he’s done based on lines from the songs in Life in the Dark. His personal reading also sounds extensive, most recently, as James mentioned, The Diary of Anne Frank, not the lightest of reading choices.
Another of the early band members, almost from the three brothers’ start, is Josh Rawson, whom the brothers call Josh, but has largely been identified as Christmas over the years. I begin to wonder if they made that up too, from what James told me. I’d asked James about Wikipedia’s listing of Christmas’ previous vocation as a traveling dice player. He replied that it was a “little joke” they’d come up with, and when it caught on, they kept it going.
Suffice it to say that Josh/Christmas is a red-hot bass player, also self-taught, the brothers putting a bass guitar in his open hands years ago. He’s a strikingly good-looking young guy with tight black curls and an almost beautiful male face. Very intense on stage, Christmas is always focused, and is often the go-to for jams with Ian. The guys all look young, but he looks really young; and he is, but only by a few years.
And another nearly original band member, Greg Farley, on fiddle, brings even more exuberance to the proceedings as well as an often bluegrass feel. They’ve had several drummers, Simone being the first. Their current man on sticks is William Lawrence, with them now for nine months. He did a fine job holding the rhythm down as well as rocking out with the rest of the band.
The Power of Narrative
The band later launched into another of their standards, Cus’s Catskill Gym. I was struck by the power of narrative in their songs. Ian begins with an evocation of the young Felice being turned away from the title fight being held in a tiny gym in their home area of the Hudson Valley.
“June 1986, place Catskill, New York/Went to the gym, but he couldn’t get in/Cus D’Amato told him to fight/He’s a hell of a fighter/Iron Mike/Swing Iron Mike/All my fighters call me Mr. Rooney/And holler at me, pick a bone/Coulda got you a Cus/but they’ll never get us/No disrespect, Mike,/Cus is gone”
As the story continued. I could see the events unfold, along with Ian’s poetic, polemic departures. “Was it for real?” I asked James. He said it was, though he was too little to have experienced much of it. He said that Mike Tyson trained at Cus’ and that their father, a karate fighter, went to watch Tyson work out at the gym.
Another song that night showed the ironic, humorous side, Aerosol Ball. from the new album.
“The doll of St. Paul/At the aerosol ball/She’s such a special girl/She’s been around the world/She made her home/In an air conditioned dome/She’s such a precious thing/She’s dancing to the king/Well her makeup and wigs/Are made of squealing pigs/And her hands and her arms are made by Pepperidge Farms/And her face and her neck/are made by Sinopec/And the lines on her palms/are made by Viacom/And her dreams and her thoughts/are made by Microsoft”
It’s total mind soup, yet catchy, perfect for Ian’s raspy, edgy voice.
James, on the other hand, has a lyrical, beautiful, extremely powerful voice perfect for ballads or spectacles. He sang a stunner that night, seeming to focus toward his charming aunt and cousin, from the Richmond area and standing in the crowd directly in front of him. He displayed a range of talents that evening, from the high-rising, at times room-enveloping vocals to his raucous, rockin’ accordion playing, rolling his super long body back and forth to the exploding beat. To top it off, he played some tasty piano on his duct-taped- together, wooden keyboard.
As you may have surmised, their shiny black bus was the only new thing new they seemed to own.
Another word on James’ vocals: He and I are not sure which song he sang that night, even though I still have the drummer’s set list, neatly written on a torn off section of cardboard box. But, we think it was Silver in the Shadow. In any event, I want to say that I pulled up a copy of the song, with James at the vocal helm. It is awesome. It struck me at the show, but listening to it one-on-one in the intimacy of my midnight dining room, I was awestruck, one of the more powerful, skilled voices I’ve ever heard. I’m sure they do what works for the band and for each of them, and I love Ian’s singing, but I can’t understand why James doesn’t sing lead more often.
His aunt told me how proud she was of him, with her smile stretched so wide, it looked like her mouth might break, Cousin Colleen in her bright, colorful tights, beaming beside her. “I can tell,” I told her, propped up, for my injury, in James’ arms, like I was his child. “Don’t worry, I got ya, Ron,” James said reassuringly, as I felt engulfed in his long arms.
I asked him about how they managed to kick together such high energy shows, night after night, like that one, one of the most energized and energizing I’ve ever experienced.
“Sometimes I get tired,” he contemplated, “like in San Francisco the other night. We’d done 12 shows in a row and thousands of miles. It was hard that night. Yet, now, I’ve had some rest over the past 24 hours, and when we hit the stage tonight (in a rain-drenched Portland), I’m ready to go, I feel it.”
I also asked him about third brother, Simone, spelled and pronounced See-Mown, but the guys call him Simon. “Off-limits to talk about him?” I asked. “Not at all,” he said, “I talk to him at least once a week. He lives nearby.” They all still live in the Hudson River Valley, near the Felice parents. “He’s producing now,” James continued, “and I’ve played on a number of his recent productions.”
Opening for the Felice’s was the young and remarkably talented Aaron Lee Tasjan, formerly with The New York Dolls and a heck of a songwriter, with his musical partner on tour, Brian. They were incredible. Nice guys too. His great new album, Silver Tears, is due out soon. They’d be doing a number of gigs with The Felice Brothers, and James said it worked out well.
The Felice Brothers performed 21 songs and played several encores, sending us all out into the continuing rain with, if I may wax poetic, a dose of cosmic understanding and transforming joy. Kudos to The Camel (try their Sausage Stars!) for bringing them in and with hopes the Felice Brothers return to Virginia soon.