The Felice Brothers are one of a kind, and they always will be. If you watch the charming video of the lovely wedding of Ian Felice and his equally lovely bride Kaya, you find yourself watching a special but culturally-conventional tableau. Brothers Ian, James, and Simone were each in their handsomely conventional tuxedos. Yet, those of us in their legions of fans know that the musical kingdom carrying the Felice moniker remains stalwartly a realm of the dark and the distinct, the unique domain of musical artists who maintain a rawness that excavates while it elevates.
At their show last night at the Union Stage on The Wharf, new waterfront development near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., one fan loudly said, “Thanks for staying angry!” (I think it was.) Angry, edgy, outlaws, whatever word you’d choose, the Felice Brothers always seem poised on barbed wire. Irony, sarcasm, even rage surface in their songs. But, there is also generosity of spirit. This band dances among stars, challenges the dark skies, brings sun into the shadows they sing of.
Ian Felice is a wonder, a man of words and musical resources that bring out the best of his own, his brother James’ and their band’s raw magic. You could see it on a night like this wherein James was really “on,” rolling his vintage-sounding accordion across body and stage. Vintage in the sense of the circus and of the hurdy-gurdy, yet the sound is also rocking and contemporary.
And, Ian was a dervish as he cut the air with his roughed-up looking electric guitar, in shades of bronze, and bent low as he played with flourish. He twirled, awkwardly at times to the point of almost falling, and then dropped to his knees in raucous melodic salute.
While, otherwise, Ian Felice is a laid-back, reserved fellow, his quirky humor shows at times when he opens his eyes extra wide, as if in humorous awe, at his own words.
Good-looking siblings, two of seven, Ian is the lean one, tall and scarecrow-like, intense-looking, while James is also tall but a big man with an expressive smile and passionate features that shine through in performance. Simone was an original band member, but went on his own some years ago, still working at times with his bros.
Ian married last year in an at-home ceremony officiated by James. In other landmark developments, the couple had a child, Henry, and moved into a quiet house near where the brothers grew up. The new dad published a book of his poems and produced a first solo album. He also did brief solo tours in the United Kingdom and his home country within a few miles of musically-iconic Woodstock, New York.
But, this show was vintage Felice Brothers. It revolved from old to new and back again. Included was their legendary early hit, the family gangster narrative, “Frankie’s Gun,” performed with great gusto for a very appreciative crowd. Later came another rocking crowd favorite, “Whiskey in My Whiskey” as well as the more recent, ironic rocker, “Aerosol Ball.”
A political edge came with the tune “The Mating of the Doves,” among others:
“And I’m a fool for giving all that I gave/To you pitiful people/When the world was made/And if I come back down from the stars above/It’s just to watch/The mating of the doves/So you can preach of Heaven and you can warn of Hell/And you can murder millions in my name/But I gave you Heaven and the only Hell/Is the one you made from fear and hate/You are all fools for thinking that I’m coming back/For some fiery judgement/And turn the worlds to black/ For if I come back down it’s not to judge but love/And be among/The Mating of the Doves.”
Does it get any better than that?!
“Plunder,” which they also performed, comes close with its political edginess:
“Plunder, plunder, rain and thunder/Green will split the soul asunder/Every time I try to organize/I turn around and my captain dies/They got machines that make machines/And those machines make more machines/Plunder, plunder, rain and thunder/Lightning split my brain asunder”
James sang a couple of beautiful songs, especially his fragile, expressive rendering of “Got What I Need,” an extraordinarily-moving and lovely song.
James played keyboards as well as accordion. On drums was the graceful, robust Will Lawrence. Rounding out the band was Jesske Hume on bass guitar. A charming, talented addition, she often plays with Conor Oberst. Missing on bass guitar was long-time, fiery band member, Josh “Christmas” Rawson and fiddler Greg Farley. Ian’s old friend Trevor is a good fellow in for the journey and to sell merch.
Opening for the Felice Brothers was the unique and exceptional Twain, centered by Mt. Davidson (Mat), with the able assistance of Ken Woodward on bass guitar and drummer Peter Pezzimenti, capably adapting to Davidson’s musical nuances., Mat and other band members have played also with the likes of Spirit Family Reunion (the core of the band) and Deslondes, and Davidson is also a regular with Langhorne Slim. Ian recently joined with members of Spirit Family Reunion, and all of the Felice Brothers played with Conor Oberst this past summer.
Twain was a wonderful discovery, appreciated by the Felice crowd. One of Davidson’s lyrics compares looking into a dog’s eyes with seeing into the soul of a man. Match that deep, delving sentiment with a voice evoking similar deep fragility, and you’ve got Twain. Add unique, driving guitar sounds and propulsive movement of his acoustic guitar in performance, and you’ve also got Twain. Pick-up a couple of thoroughly professional and engaged musicians to join him, and that’s Twain too.
One man in the crowd showed some of the exuberance I’d noted a couple of years ago when I’d noticed his aggressive, passionate dancing at the Felice Brothers’ show at Richmond’s Camel. He was also in the couple who went to the Catskills to catch Ian solo. Another audience member and backstage comrade was a friend of James, now a DC lobbyist for environmental causes, who had known James since they were together in the fourth grade.
Other Felice tunes that night included “Wonderful Life” and “Life in the Dark.” These added heft, poetry, and variety to the performance, especially evocative in the introspective nature of the songs, layering meaning and feeling in the same depth as the speed and rock of tunes like “Whiskey” and “Frankie’s Gun.”
When I arrived at the venue, I met Daniel Brindley, one of the three-brother (two of them musicians) team that owns the venue, as well as the legendary performance space Jammin’ Java in nearby Vienna, Virginia. Union Stage is one of three performance spaces there on the new urban waterfront development, The Wharf. It is the middle in size of the three spaces, all more or less in sight of each other.
The third night open for this excited and exciting new venue, the Union Stage made a fine choice for night three, the day before New Year’s Eve and one hell of an insanely cold night outside, by warming things with the characteristic Felice Fire on the inside.