Cambridge might seem an an improbable place for the dreamy Americana of the Felice Brothers- with its cosy pubs on terraced streets, and guys in boaters punting around – and yet in this very rarefied and British setting they performed a delightful if uneven set at the Cambridge Junction theatre. However the gentility of the venue might have come as a relief to the band after the theft of much of their equipment on the previous Leeds leg of the tour by the more rootsy people of Yorkshire.
This setback was narrated mid-set by James Felice – the accordionist, keyboardist and second vocalist of the group, and younger brother to the the group’s primary vocalist Ian Felice. However, the two don’t look all that alike. There’s nothing Dad-bod about James: his biceps bulge, his stomach’s ripped, and generally comes across all over as a figure of swarthy health. Elder brother Ian however, is wiry to the point of spindliness, has a wispy moustache and tends to crouch forward as he sings in a pose of gaunt defiance. This is very much unlike his younger sibling whose chest projects forward in a way that Jordan Peterson would admire and applaud.
To be honest there is a litle bit of the gang of Scooby Doo in The Felice Brothers. Ian would be Shaggy and James would be Fred (but with black hair, not blond). The bassist Jesske Humme could do an excellent Daphne Blake with some thick rimmed glasses and a haircut. Unfortunately there the analogy breaks down a bit – the drummer Will Lawrence is not remotely like Velma Dinkley, nor Scoob – however he is a great drummer, if unorthodox. During the more energetic moments of the set he would be almost crouching over the drums rather than pounding them from a sedentary position.
Actually, thinking about it, he drums a bit like Scoob might, if you can see his torso arching over the drums while he hits the toms with his paws, and the bass drum with his hind legs. But is this strange posture, I wonder, just maybe because of some missing stands arising from the burglary at the previous gig, making the toms lower than they should have been, causing the drummer to beat over-and-down, rather like the way an old lady with an umbrella might beat the fingers of desperate person clinging to the window frames of a rail carriage trying to enter an already over packed train. Nonetheless his posture would certainly make most drum tutors anxious about the prospect of back injury in later life, and Ian Felice’s stooping forward over the microphone would also not find favour with many vocal coaches either.
The Cambridge Junction venue in many ways is a perfect location for them – intimate, with a smallish standing area, and only about 2 rows each of seats around the three walls of the space. The raised seats of the second row (at the back where I was sitting) were built on metal bars and quite high, such that one’s feet did not touch the floor. The experience was mildly like the kind of mid air chairs you might find on the more thrilling rides at adventure parks. As a result though, the metal bar transmitted all the sedentary grooving by the rocky elders there across the whole row, but with a slight latency meaning the secondary vibrations generated were not always in time with the music. The effect was a bit like those electronic massage chairs you find in shopping centres – the effect not totally pleasing, but not that distracting either.
The acoustics there were very good. Ian Felice plays a fairly beat-up semi acoustic guitar but it was mic’d beautifully and its tones were ravishing. The accordion of James was also fabulous and the bass of Jesske Humme was mixed perfectly.
I didn’t know much of the history of The Felice Brothers before seeing the gig. I had only bought tickets after one of their songs came up in the “Weather” section of one of the “Welcome to Nightvale” episodes. Essentially they have been around since 2008, initially following the same wave as types like Mumford and Sons, but also following an ethic of determined authenticity thus maybe spurning opportunities that came to their more flexible cousins. However, this stubborn authenticity has resulted in recent songs of deep social commentary, particularly in their most recent album “Undress” and is in marked contrast to their earlier fare of pistol-toting vignettes where straying wives (Whiskey in My Whiskey), and unlucky drug mules (Frankie’s Gun) meet with sad ends, and where the wary couple of “The Greatest Show on Earth” – make a big point of going “concealed-carry” on the way to the circus.
One of the strangest things for me about seeing this band live was the difference between the live and the recorded versions of some of their songs. The opening song “Wonderful Life” gave me shivers as I heard it – the performance was perfect and totally involving. Seriously it was awesome – the level of the vocals might not have been quite right, but it was the most brilliant performance. And yet, looking it up after the gig, the recorded version didnt seem to have anything like the same power.
The melancholy of “Jack at the Asylum” was performed well – this time I didnt find the live version as affecting as the studio one. However the song “Special Announcement” from the latest album was wonderful rocky song, which has suggestions of Lou Reed’s “Last Great American Whale” – which itself comes from another great album of social commentary – “New York”. “Salvation Army Girl”, again from the latest album, coming 3 songs later is another great song where improbable female beauty appears in more down at heel surroundings, and almost seems like how the woman of “Like A Rolling Stone” might have ended up in a more propitious coda to her story.
But then a few songs later, there was another performance that was of a level of compelling intensity unlike much else except the very first song of the set. “Rockerfella Drugstore Blues” with its slow chorus of “Fifteen grams of heroin/An ounce of speed” in which the singer reflects on his unsuccessful drug dealing career from the position of being bus taking him to the Attica prison – was just absolutely brilliant – you could feel the involvement of the audience in the song as the singer narrates the sad struggle of the protagonist, who resorting to drug-dealing to pay for his mother’s medication, instead just gets a criminal convection and mandatory 10-15, but ends up with acceptance of his long sentence with some weirdly transcendent imagery at the end. An absolute tour de force.
The set ended after 17 songs – and then finished with a chorus of three more, ending with the deceptive danceability of Frankie’s Gun. Overall it was a really good gig, though I wished they had also played “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Three Blind Birds” also, where their melancholic side is to my mind at its best.
As I said at the start – of course this might just be me – there was some unevenness. The opening song and “Rockerfella Drugstore Blues” were performances of such power and compelling involvement – that they put the other songs into the shade. This maybe down to the mixed nature of their oeuvre. On the one hand there is the crowd pleasing, rootin-tootin stuff they go in for, alongside the acute social commentary and profound empathy of much else. By that I mean, the Eleanor who gets “fast” with the “deputy” to the protagonists chagrin causing him to put three rounds in her in “Whiskey in my Whiskey”, and thereafter imbibe is, well, a fairly well known story arc – crime-passionel-dans-la-prairie/je bois – whereas the story of the drug dealer in Rockerfella Drugstore Blues is profoundly empathetic, cinematic in its construction and delivering some kind of vision of transcendence at the end.
I dont suppose they will ever be able to resolve the distance between the two sides of their music – but equally why would they want to. There are plenty of people who will prefer the more Ceilidh-friendly stuff, and there are those like me who prefer the more soul-searching and confessional songs. There is probably space for both.