The Felice Brothers will perform at the Bearsville Theater in Bearsville, New York, on November 21, 2018 at 7pm. Tickets are $25—$5. For more information, call (845) 679-4406 or buy tickets online.
Well, this is certainly overdue. For nearly a decade, your music editor has watched and listened from the sidelines as the Felice Brothers have gone from being a local band with a following of friends to a certified phenomenon that sells out large venues across Europe and North America, wins drooling praise in the press, and places albums in the Billboard charts.
But during that time whenever the idea of featuring the band came up it always seemed like they were out there on the road, doing what they do and amassing more and more zealous fans. The Felice Brothers aren't the easiest guys to catch for a sit-down. Finally, though, here we are, with accordionist and keyboardist James Felice and singer, guitarist, and main songwriter Ian Felice in their rehearsal space just outside Hudson. It was here, the garage of a farm outbuilding adjacent to a chicken coop and a tractor repair shop, that they recorded Life in the Dark, their seventh and latest studio album.
"Sometimes the chickens come by and hang out when we're playing," says James, who engineered the band-produced effort and once lived in a converted chicken coop himself. "We have a friend with a wood shop next door. You can hear his table saw sometimes when you're in here. We made [2011's] Celebration, Florida in a school building in Beacon. All our records have been done in odd places."
Odd places. By this point in their near-constantly-road-dogging career, the Felice Brothers have seen many of them. The list starts, however, with the one where the group's founding members, and real-life brothers, James, Ian, and vocalist-drummer Simone Felice, hail from: Palenville. A hamlet of Greene County with a population of 1,037, the tiny town is perhaps the least-likely locality in the Hudson Valley for an internationally known rock band to have originated. Little more than the T intersection of routes 32A and 23A, it sits at the craggy foot of Kaaterskill Clove and is mainly known to modern outsiders as a wide spot en route to Kaaterskill Falls and Hunter Mountain. But there's history in this hollow. Bisected by the Long Path hiking trail that connects Fort Lee to Albany, Palenville was a magnet for the Hudson River School painters, the set of productions by silent film star Mary Pickford, and the fictional home of Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle.
The sleepy site was also an idyllic place for the Felice boys, whose father worked as a builder and whose mother juggled various jobs, to grow up in. "It was pretty Huck Finn-ish," says Ian. "We'd make rope swings in the woods, go camping. There definitely is a spooky, Sleepy Hollow vibe to the landscape. It was pretty lawless then, too—Palenville doesn't have a police department." (The town relies on state troopers and Catskill cops for security.) Prior to the formation of the Felice Brothers, there actually was a touring local band of note, 1990s alternative unit Dripping Goss, which provided inspiration to the young siblings (leader Brian Goss was in Fuzz Deluxe, one of Simone's numerous early projects). There were also the acoustic hoots at creek-side tavern the Fernwood Restaurant. "I saw John Herald there when I was 14 or 15," Ian recalls. "Seeing all of these folk people like him was a big influence."
Fueled by folk, the three brothers started getting together at their father's house for Sunday song swaps/cookouts. Their confidence buttressed, they soon took the blend of rootsy country rock that they'd been developing in their mountain home to the subways and streets of Manhattan, where they worked as buskers.
To many, the rustic, ramshackle sounds they made evoked those of a group of earlier players who'd done some similar woodshedding just a few miles up the road from Palenville, in the cellar of a certain pink house in Saugerties. James, however, considers his group's perceived picking up of the mantle of Bob Dylan and The Band as "an accident of geography. We never tried to get into that world and we never felt like part of that scene. Yeah, we're from the same area, but we had as much exposure to that music as anyone else our age."
In 2006, the group recorded its self-released, official debut, Through These Reins and Gone, added bassist Josh "Christmas Clapton" Rawson, crammed themselves and their gear into a beat-up short bus and began touring like the rootless narrator in the first album's "Trailer Song." The acoustic-orientated Through These Reins... lassoed major airplay on WDST Radio Woodstock, thanks in large part to early championing by station program director and morning show host Jimmy Buff. "I was living in Palenville, and their younger sister Clare gave me one of their demo CDs, which had 'Ballad of Lou the Welterweight' on it," says Buff. "I really liked that track and started playing it, and the response was great. Ian's one of the best songwriters in the world today, his lyrics seem so effortless and true. The Lumineers' drummer, Jeremiah Friates, recently told me about coming to Kingston to see the Brothers back in 2007 or 2008 and being blown away—he said it changed the way he and [singer] Wes Schultz viewed how music could be made."
With 2007 came the release of the style-crystalizing sophomore set Tonight at the Arizona, on the UK label Loose, and the tour-only compilation The Adventures of the Felice Brothers Vol. 1. Despite their initial ambivalence about having any ties to local legacies, the old guard anointed the band with a coveted appearance at one of Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles. Soon after, a fall tour with Bright Eyes (aka Conor Oberst) snagged the attention of that act's label, New Paltz indie Team Love, which released 2008's The Felice Brothers. Home to the boozy breakthrough hit "Frankie's Gun!," the disc brought the Felices' Faulknerian folk rock to a larger audience, winning them a run of prime festival slots that culminated with a riotous performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Their next album, 2009's raw, autumnal Yonder is the Clock, was heralded as a high-water mark by reviewers and even made the Billboard 200. It seemed the boys from Palenville were barreling down the tracks to their arrival at full speed. And then some unexpected news from within threatened to knock everything off the rails. Simone quit.
"We already had this whole tour booked, so that was a pretty difficult moment," James recalls about the announcement from the eldest brother, who left to work with his side project the Duke & The King and pursue a solo career. "But you can't ever stop. You just make do with what you have." And so the group dusted themselves off and hit the road for the presciently named Big Surprise Tour with Old Crow Medicine Show and Justin Townes Earle, adding new members Greg Farley on fiddle and vocals and Dave Turbeville on drums (since replaced by Will Lawrence). After some stadium shows opening for the Dave Matthews Band, they reunited with Oberst for some West Coast gigs and flew to England, where they were rabidly received.
In 2011, the Brothers hopped to the venerated Fat Possum imprint for Celebration, Florida, an effort that had them bucking their Band/Basement Tapes branding by experimenting with trip hop on the singles "Ponzi" and "Fire at the Pageant" and once again made the Billboard charts. An EP, Poughkeepsie Princess, and God Bless You, Amigo, a digital-only collection of home recordings, came next, before the band switched to Dualtone Records and returned to familiar folksy terrain with 2014's Favorite Waitress. After supporting the latter with yet another major tour, they held off on making another album until Life in the Dark, which came out in June on Yep Roc Records.
Cut "completely live," according to James, in their farm-side rehearsal room, Life in the Dark's loose vibe hints at the Neil Young obsession the band was feeling during the recording and illustrates Ian's aim of "writing songs that bring people together, like Woody, Dylan, and Leonard Cohen." It wasn't intended as such, he maintains, but the record plays like a series of impressionistic observations of our precarious planet: The deceptively cheerful "Aerosol Ball" references environmental destruction and mindless consumer/celebrity culture, while "Sell the House" laments a family who've fallen on hard times and the rousing, fiddle-and-organ-drenched standout "Plunder" takes shots at corporate lawlessness and "machines that make more machines." "[The album] is just a collection of the songs I'd written, but it deals with a lot of anxieties," says Ian in his nasal, instantly recognizable rasp. "I guess it's just about trying to process the horrors that are happening in the world."
Ten years down the trail from the backyard barbecues that begat the band, one wonders: Besides their being better known and having more to show for their efforts, what else is different now for the Felice Brothers?
"Before, we lived only for the music and now it's more of a professional thing," says Ian, now 33 and living on a farm in Columbia County with his lady. "My favorite part of the process is the writing. I'd be fine with not going on the road."
James, 36, has a different take. "Touring suits my temperament," says the keyboardist, a Kingston resident. "It's more fun now, we know our strengths and what kind of music we want to do. I've never had a boss, never had to have a job. We basically grew up on the road. And now we've become responsible adults."
Imagine that, Mom and Dad.