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Roadhouse blues: the Felice Brothers.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Rock of Ages

By Mike Hotter

The Felice Brothers, Willy Mason

Valentine’s, April 10

On record, the Felice Brothers’ sonic resemblance to Big Pink-era Dylan and the Band tends to distract, leading some (ahem, Pitchfork) to accuse the Palenville boys of the basest form of roots-rock nostalgia. Last Friday night’s rollicking show in support of the recently released Yonder is the Clock went a long way toward carving out a legend the Felice Brothers could call their own.

James Felice, the bearlike one with the Amish beard and jolly countenance, was the first to take the stage, setting the mood by coaxing science-fiction sounds out of his organ. The Garth Hudson comparisons faded when the drummer (brother Simone was on hiatus due to personal matters) sat down at the drum kit and proceeded to bash out an intense fatback beat that Kanye West might have paid richly for. The rest of the band members hopped onto the stage one by one, stoking the crowd by adding to the sonic stew and building a sense of drama that was remarkable for such a relatively young band. Ian Felice, primary singer and guitarist, intoned, “Get the boys, turn on the show”; with those words came the unveiling of “The Big Surprise,” and for the rest of the night the crowd rested firmly in his sweaty palm.

The Felice Brothers in concert are a lot more rock & roll then you’d expect from listening to their records; they are capable of conjuring a big sound, ranging from ominous and oceanic to a bluesy barrelhouse racket. The band’s lyrical themes are quintessential Americana, all outlaw myth, nautical imagery and guns galore.

With a grizzled voice, Ian Felice is the band’s lodestar, singing reams of novelistic lyrics, sometimes jumping to the top of the bass drum or an amplifier to blast off a ripping guitar solo. Bounding around on stage right, violinist Greg Farley was the Harpo to Ian’s Groucho, mimicking his movements and wrestling noise out of a washboard (until he split it in half, bashing it on a cymbal during “Chicken Wire”). Aside from the gang vocals and James’ accordion playing, the most cogent reminder of the Band came in the form of bassist-vocalist Christmas Clapton, who plays in an intuitive style of thump and melody a la the late Rick Danko.

The vocally supportive audience was as much a part of the show as the band; songs like “Love Me Tenderly” and “Whiskey in My Whiskey” just aren’t complete without a roomful of drinkers and hell-raisers shouting along. It helps, of course, that these dudes are semi-local. Lyrics like “I walk the line into Hudson town/The blue Burger King billboard signs remind me of her mother’s eyes” show an unabashed if slightly jaundiced pride in living among the great upstate unwashed. And, on this night, the Felice Brothers proved themselves the finest purveyors of rural fatalism we have going at the moment.

The illness of an audience member caused Willy Mason to play a truncated opening set, but his songs made a quiet impact, a fine setup for the raucousness to follow.

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