Sometimes, rarely but sometimes, a concert can really floor you. Just surprise you in ways you had no idea you still could be. I’m glad to say this last Saturday I attended a sold out show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom that did just that. Omaha Nebraska’s McCarthy Trenching opened the show at about 8:15 belting out self-described songs of drinking, killing and horses with workmanlike diligence and little room for flourish. 26-year-old singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle then hit the stage sporting a throwback look – sequin-trimmed suit and Brylcreemed hair – to match his gloriously throwback sound. Accompanied by mandolin-banjo-harmonica player and stamp-collection enthusiast Cory Younts, Earle served up with his blend of old school honkey-tonk (Hard Livin, Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’) and Tennessee backwoods country (Who Am I To Say, The Ghost Of Virginia) and straight up corn-pone fun (Chitlin Cookin Time In Cheetham County, Your Biscuit’s Big Enough For Me.) All the country music history sketches that make up his new release ‘The Good Life” were on show in full force. Earle showed confidence as he stalked the stage, stomped his boots to cue chorus to bridge breaks and hoisted his acoustic guitar rifle-like Johnny Cash-style. The New York crowd whooped and hollered and the girls near the stage stood transfixed with by his rugged Southern charm. Earle left the stage with a song for his Grandpa (Absolute Angels Blues) after almost an hour and left the crowd wanting more but primed the crowd for what was to come.
The most accurate and hilarious description I’ve come across for the Felice Brothers (actually three brothers and friends) is by way of Andrew Leahey over at All Music Guide – “they’re a pack of earth-stained country boys from the wilds of the Catskill Mountains, not Ivy Leaguers who thought ransacking their parents ’60s records would a better career move than grad school.” Dead on description and doubly so live. Cards on the table, I came to the show for Justin Townes Earle and decided to hang for a few songs by these Yankee roots rockers just to see what all the fuss was about. I’m glad I did. It appeared that many under 30-year-olds from the Felice Brothers hometown of the Hudson River Valley and the New York City area, where the Felice boys honed their craft in the subway stations, turned out to welcome them back home. Young girls in cotton dresses shouted the band members names like they had them in home room and their drunk boyfriends sang to every song at the top of their lungs like they could do it in their sleep.The Felice Brothers are often compared to a more punked-out Band, and it’s a pretty fair comparison.
Like The Band The Felice Brothers take country and roots music and turns it in on it’s history to exposes the Celtic, blues and gospel innards. Gothic Americana landscapes drenched with sepia, whiskey (on stage and in verse) and blood. Sometimes it seemed that the band was using their instruments as weapons and songs would veer just out of control just to right itself at the last minute. Tales of broken dreams and dreamers flat broke and staring down narrowing odds (the harrowing Hey Hey Revolver), sin, redemption and Dixieland salvation (Saved (Lieber-Stolle), Mercy) and salacious limo drivers (Cincinnati Queen) and straight up murder ballads that would make Nick Cave take notice (Ruby Mae.) Sometimes the whole affair seemed like a Ken Burns soundtrack mashed up with the Pogues on a particularly heavy bender. Guitarist and lead gravel-throated vocalist Ian, drummer and vocalist Simone and accordionist and bear of a man James Felice along with a guy named Christmas (bass) and Farley (fiddle and washboard) played music dank with tradition and yet crackling with passion and fire. I’ve always said that if you can fake authenticity you can do anything, but if there is any faking until they make it with this band then my well tuned bullshit detector was unable to pick up the trace.There have been some leveling of derision at the Felice Brothers for supposedly cribbing their sound to the Dyan/Band basement tapes. These jibes are usually from critics that see no problem giving a pass to the likes of the Zeppelin/Pixies plagiarism that is the White Stripes. I agree with Picasso that bad artists copy and great artists steal. The Felice Bros. are casing the joint and armed to the teeth.