Night has fallen, and the Felice Brothers are out for a stroll.
The three siblings happen upon a shot-up pickup, its driver slouched and bleeding,
too weak to switch off the headlights.
“Take this bread, if you need it, friend,” they
sing, generous to a fault. “If you’re alright, I’m alright.”
The dying man, it turns out, is a murderer and kidnapper—he
just plucked a girl from the Wal-Mart parking lot—and the bullet in his
gut came compliments of the local police.
Lucky for him, the Felices aren't ones to judge. Conmen, drug
runners, outlaws: All are welcome in their imaginary America. To them, guilt
and innocence are never black and white, and in a song like “Take this
Bread”—the source of the above-mentioned vignette—it's the
story, not the moral, that matters.
“In the old songs, turn-of-the-century blues and folk,
most of the songs were character songs,“ singer and multi-instrumentalist
James Felice says by phone, back in Brooklyn after a recent European tour. “I
think that's what we took a shine to. You write a great love song, that's fine,
but songs about characters are really what interested us.“
Maybe that’s because they’re such characters themselves.
The eldest three children in a family of seven, Simone, Ian, and James Felice
grew up in Palenville, New York, a small mountain town 20 minutes outside of
Unlike the many bearded musicians who dwell in the ironic space
between Brooklyn living and backwoods aesthetics, the Felice Brothers discovered
arcane music having first listened to little else. They skipped their embarrassing
rap and grunge phases and went right for the old stuff: country, folk, blues,
“It just found its way into our lives,“ James says.
“It definitely spoke to us on a deeper level. I didn't know what was going
on with modern music. I still don't know too much about it. You turn on the
radio and hear a bunch of stuff that sucks. Then you hear an old Jimmie Rodgers
record, and it's the best shit you've ever heard in your life.“
James and his brothers became musical treasure hunters. With
the help of friends' parents, books, and even PBS specials, they followed dusty
trails from artist to artist, song to song. Before long, they were singing at
family barbecues, supplementing ancient folk tunes with the occasional Led Zeppelin
A couple of years ago, after “adopting“ Christmas,
an itinerant 19-year-old gambler-cum-bassist, they got serious and lit out for
New York City.
Broke and homeless, if their yarn is to be believed, the brothers
took to the subway for some guerilla Americana. If their busking didn't earn
them much cash, the daily challenge of playing to uninterested MTA riders led
them to develop the twitchy, startling mannerisms that now define their electric
“When we play live, we want people to have a good time,“
James says. “The worst thing is when a band acts like they're doing the
crowd a favor. It's a community thing. It's not just a band—it's the people
in the audience that are enjoying it. It's give and take. If we're playing in
front of a dull audience, we're not going to play as well.“
Despite their popularity in the U.S. and overseas—this
past European trip was their third—the Felice Brothers were long reluctant
to sign a record contract. Instead, they became traveling salesman, selling
their music almost exclusively at live shows.
“We were approached by pretty much every label you could
think of at one time or another,“ James says. Some made decent offers,
but the music business reeked of full-time employment—something the brothers
formed a band to avoid.
They ultimately settled on Team Love, and earlier this year,
the label issued the band's first domestic full-length. The self-titled collection
features a handful of new songs, as well as material from hard-to-find early
releases, such as “The Adventures of the Felice Brothers, Vol. 1.”
Taken as a whole, “The Felice Brothers” presents
a kind of romantic rural vision. Pistol-packing mamas mingle with kindhearted
lovers. Runaway circus elephants trample crowds of people. Flophouse pianos
plink alongside jamboree horns and eerie accordions. The songs defy place and
time, and as they sing of whiskey and women, the brothers affect the vagabond
drawl of their most obvious influence, early Bob Dylan.
Like Dylan, the Felice Brothers are loving thieves who willingly
admit to using old songs as templates for their own.
“That's what the tradition of roots music is all about:
listening and reinterpreting,” James says. “There are only a certain
number of chords and melodies you can have with this kind of music. Melodies
get reused and reworked. It's not about improving what's come before, but putting
your own spin on it.“
Good music persists for a reason, James says. The farther an
artist strays from time-tested formulas, the less likely they'll be to create
anything of worth.
“I very rarely hear anything that's really original and really good at
the same time,“ he says. “Music has been around too long for someone
to be really original at it.“
While far from innovative, the Felice Brothers take great joy
and care in creating their characters. Their murder ballads have heart their
love songs have teeth. “I might have lost my leg in the war,” Ian
sings on “Love Me Tenderly,” one of the album’s standouts,
laughing off his battle scars. “What war? The war of love.” Comedy
and tragedy ride together, passengers in a car with a wasted driver, gun in
the glove box, and trunk full of contraband.
The brothers tend to write collectively, and according to James,
they’ve managed to avoid the squabbles that have felled many a fraternal
“We all live together and work together,” James
says. “We do everything together. It's really synergistic. We can reach
each other's minds, almost. It's great. I couldn't really imagine being in a
band without my brothers.“