The Felice Brothers story is already shrouded in the sort of mythical aura where fact and fiction are indistinguishable, and, for that matter, mostly irrelevant. It’s the good, old-fashioned, over-romanticized, seemingly forgotten story of the rambling American folk singer. In a sense, it’s the same sort of back-story that catapulted Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, to whom the Brothers have drawn numerous comparisons, from mere songwriters to folk icons.
Of course, the Felice Brothers aren’t exactly icons. Then again, they’ve only been at it for two years.
Their story is, however, just the kind of thing music fans love: A band of scruffy American drifters who caught their first break busking in the subways and streets of New York City, performing their freewheeling folk for anyone who would listen. From there, however, the reasons behind the band’s current rise to national-level Americana act become a little less clear.
Maybe it’s because they were discovered by a freelance music journalist who introduced them to an international audience, and who helped to craft their public image as a group of reckless, hard-living and flawed geniuses. Or maybe it’s because their songs are oozing with sincerity and authenticity, putting them at direct odds with the musical mainstream.
Or maybe, just maybe, they’re the real deal.
Born and raised in the rural Catskill Mountains of upstate N.Y., James, Ian and Simone Felice got a “simple start” playing Sunday nights at their father’s house. Eventually, James says, they decided they might as well get a band together and take their weekly sing-alongs on the road. After enlisting a longtime friend known simply as “Christmas” to play bass, the foursome was complete. Once he learned to play bass, that is.
“Christmas was a friend of mine growing up, this weird kid from a town over from me,” explains James Felice, an accordion player and youngest of the three Felice Brothers. “I introduced him to my brothers, and they thought he was a cool guy. So we told him we wanted to start a band and to learn how to play bass. And he did. And he does. It was a simple situation.”
From there, the Felice Brothers self-recorded their gritty debut, Through These Reigns and Gone, inside—in true would-be legend form—a chicken coop. Taking a cue from their predecessors, the four quit their jobs, loaded into a broken-down special education bus and hit the road. They performed on the streets of nearby towns, hawking their CD for food money, until they eventually landed in Brooklyn. The “short bus,” as it was affectionately known, became the group’s second home.
“We got the bus from this f**king-weird old guy,” James recalls, with the nonchalance befitting a man who could seemingly care less what might be written about him or his band. “We had a couple bucks, so we took all the money we had and bought this big, stupid short bus. It actually worked out pretty well. It made it for like two years.”
After several months of scraping by on the New York City streets—which included run-ins with the law that James hesitantly refers to as “general tomfoolery and youthfulness”—the Felice Brothers caught the ear of a freelance writer named Gabe Soria who instantly fell for the unmistakable authenticity of their electric-era Dylan sound. Soria, a contributor to tastemaking magazines such as Mojo and Vice, would soon became the band’s biggest advocate, even helping land the Felice Brothers a deal with England’s Loose Records.
“He saw us play at a farmers’ market in Fort Green I think,” James remembers with the slightest hint of enthusiasm. “And he liked us, and he told some people in England about us. That’s how we got our record deal. He did a lot of good things for us, said a lot of very kind things to a lot of good people about us. We love Gabe.”
As they should. Once the band’s European debut, Tonight at the Arizona, was released last spring, the Brothers became instant critical darlings, garnering gushing reviews and landing festival gigs and club dates across Europe. In other words, once people actually heard the Felice Brothers, things started happening. And they happened fast.
Within a matter of months, the one-time buskers had returned to the States, completed their first official U.S. tour and joined modern-folk icon Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) for a string of East Coast dates that ended with the Felice Brothers taking the stage at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall. Apparently, Oberst was also taken with the Brothers. Early this year, he signed the band to his Team Love Records, which is set to release their official stateside debut next month.
Despite their growing success, the Felice Brothers aren’t ready to give up their travelin’ ways. They’re already back on the road with dates booked into early summer, this time in a Winnebago that has a working refrigerator and stove. According to James, that’s exactly where they want to be.
“I love the road,” he says with pride. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and you can learn a lot about America. It’s a great land with fun people. I just love being out here.”
[Dane Smith is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: The Felice Brothers with Man Man and The Extraordinaires
what: Rough-n-ready Americana
where: Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, March 6. 9 p.m. ($10. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)