“Bird on Broken Wing,” the lead track to Favorite Waitress — the new record from upstate New York folk-rockers The Felice Brothers — opens with a barking dog. It sounds less like the band was trying to be artistic and more like someone might have let a furry friend into the studio. But the entire record, though polished and wrench-tight in terms of its musicianship and songcraft, exudes exactly that kind of ease. It’s as rough as it is refined; as shadowed as it is sunlit. Accordion and keyboard player James Felice credits that energy and authenticity to producer Jeremy Backofen who “forced us to play the songs hundreds of times before we got into the studio so that we could record the whole thing pretty much live.”
The band — with Ian Felice (guitar and vocals), Greg Farley (fiddle), Josh “Christmas Clapton” Rawson (bass) and David Estabrook (drums) — toured from its home base in the Catskills to the recording studio in Nebraska to road-test the group of songs that would become Favorite Waitress. That trip was to “get comfortable with the songs and make sure we liked playing them all live,” says James. “We did.”
The group returns to Asheville on Monday, July 7 — the Felice Brothers’ first time headlining The Orange Peel. “We couldn’t be more excited to rock the place,” says James. We’ll be … shouting, singing explosive revelries, drinking, laughing, crying, hugging and kissing. Then we’ll all go to Mamacita’s for a burrito.”
If the appeal of the Felice Brothers, a raucous band of troubadours, is hard to quantify, the record’s selling points are not: Simultaneously playful and emotionally raw, songs turn up gems of rugged poetry like “Under the swinging bridge with a cigarette / the heavens of heaven of heaven ain’t as nice, I bet.”
“Most of our inspiration comes from the Catskills and the Hudson Valley,” says James. “It has been our home for our whole lives, and I think most of us plan on living there until we die.” Not that the quintet gets to spend much time there. At press time they were touring the U.K., where they have an enthusiastic fan base.
“It’s an amazing feeling to travel thousands of miles from home and have hundreds of folks come out to the shows,” says James. To make the trip, the band flies with its instruments as carry-ons: “The accordion looks very suspicious under an X-ray,” says James. “They search it almost every time we fly.”
The Felice Brothers got their start most of a decade ago not on transcontinental flights but on trains. Rather, train stations: the New York City subway, to be exact. And at their dad’s Sunday cookouts. With sibling Simone Felice (who went on to form his own band), the brothers turned their busking act into opening slots for Bright Eyes and an invite to play at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble. The Guardian pronounced them “a new breed of musical outlaw and inheritors of the counterculture mantle.” To that newspaper, the band claimed, “We didn’t care that we sucked. And we still don’t. We like to suck a little bit.”
Now, 10 (depending on how you count) albums in, it’s possible that the Felice Brothers still don’t care if they suck. They’ve shared stages with Old Crow Medicine Show and the Dave Matthews Band, played Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival and landed songs on the show “True Blood” and the film The Messenger. What do they have to prove?
Entertainment website The A.V. Club declared Favorite Waitress “an oddly steeped ode to never growing up.” James takes the offhanded compliment in stride. “I guess being a musician is inherently a sort of childlike existence. After all, we ‘play’ for a living,” he says. “Every show we play is a joy for us, but it’s also what pays the rent — you have to balance that adolescent freedom with a dose of grown-up worldliness or else you come home from tour and everything you own is in a garbage bag in the driveway.”
He adds, “Maybe that’s what the record’s about.”
That, and (as the title suggests) a food service worker. Sort of. “It’s dedicated to any and all of the kind, wonderful and beautiful waitresses — and waiters — who have served us raggedy dirtbags with a smile over the years,” says James. “A kind waitress can sometimes be the best thing about a day on tour.”
WHO The Felice Brothers with Robert Ellis
WHERE The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN Monday, July 7, at 9 p.m. $15 advance/$18 day of show