The Felice Brothers
EAT X NE Festival
September 20, 2014
last saw the Felice Brothers in September of 2013, they were about to steal the show at the Grand Point North Festival at Burlington, Vermont's Waterfront Park with a single song that brought much of the audience to a hush. The rest of their set, unfortunately, was a bit too sloppy for its own good, even by their standards and, in contrast to previous shows in the area, they appeared and sounded more disinterested than caught up in the moment.
The quintet was fully engaged, however, for the duration of their single set at the Eat X NE Festival the balmy evening of September 20th. As if they sensed the import of playing on the cusp of summer turning to autumn, the Felices made a concentrated effort to present themselves and their music in the best possible light and it paid off, the raucous likes of "Run Chicken Run" as effective in rousing an audience open to their suggestion, as were the more contemplative likes of tunes sung by James Felice at keyboard (though those hushed numbers didn't stop a cross- section of the crowd from socializing).
In fact, the accordionist/pianist/vocalist has now assumed the position as focal point of the group, which makes his enter stage placement more than just symbolic. Sibling guitarist Ian Felice still does most of the lead singing, but even apart from sound issues with microphones (an aberration in the otherwise deep powerful mix that accentuated the muscular bass playing of Christmas (sic) Felice and drummer Dave Estabrook), the wan guitarist/singer, cheerful as he forced himself to be during his late set intro of the group, couldn't hold the listeners as his affable brother did (though he might have if he had rendered a formal take on Warren Zevon's "Carmelita" that he ran through briefly warming up).
The comparative charisma of the two is, in fact, a metaphor for the design of the Felices' set list at Burlington's Oakledge Park. Eminently brave in alternating upbeat numbers ripe for singalong like "Whiskey In My Whiskey" and "Frankie's Gun" with touching balladry, The Felice Brothers illustrated that, though the spontaneity of their chemistry is the heart of their roughhewn charm, there's no small intelligence at work in songs like "Penn Station" and the arrangements of them. In the slightly-overwrought intro to the band, the reference to the band's latest album, Favorite Waitress
(Dualtone, 2014) was well-advised: the continuity between this scintillating return to earthy form and the Felices' appearance in their return to Vermont (appropriately bordering their native New York as James laughingly observed) was as heartening as it was memorable.
The old-timey sounds of Greg Farley's fiddle and washboard might well have sounded hokey in another setting, but even more than his ebullient stage presence, he conjured a celebratory air that reminded why this Felice Brothers performance, hearkening to rustic fall rituals of yore, was even further in keeping with the charitable intent of Eat X NE: for the benefit of local farmers. Add to that the muted carnival-like atmosphere beyond the music tentfood and brew vendors arranged in a shady grove busy with a clientele from all manner of demographicsand there's all the more reason to hope this occasion becomes an annual ritual to which the Felices can add their high-spirited benediction.