Coming down from the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York for one of their now regular visits to the U.K the brothers Felice have transformed the grand surroundings of the Shepherds Bush Empire into a sardine can of anticipation. There are bodies squashed against other bodies, personal spaces being invaded and polite requests of “excuse me” uttered as people weave their way to the front to catch a better view of The Felice Brothers Family hoe-down.
Before the festivities begin its the Willy Mason who ambles onstage, straps on a guitar and reminds the audience just what made him such a name on everybody’s lips a few years ago.No longer the flannel clad alt-troubadour of 2004’s ‘Where the Humans Eat’ the now suited Willy Mason has visually grown into that deep effortless drawl of a singing voice that seemed too world weary for him. For thirty minutes even sound problems and a guitar that’s way too loud cant ruin ‘Gotta Keep Movin’, the amiable shuffle of ‘I Got Gold’ and the wistful beauty of ‘Oxygen’ showing what a gorgeous song it still is nearly ten years on.
Close your eyes at during the Felice Brothers opening clutch of songs and you could be transported to the backyard of rundown house in anywhere USA,Fenced in by stacks of empty shells of cars and a crowd of scruffy teens and crushed beer cans watching The Felice Brothers play their hearts out. A new song ‘Butch Cassidy’ is played first, the packed house devouring every note from the band and making this 2,000 capacity venue feel as intimate as a small barn or dive bar. Keyboardist/vocalist James Felice straps on his accordion for a booming rendition of ‘Whiskey in my Whiskey’ the whole crowd singing along in drunken heartbreak as the bearlike James sings his heart out alongside brother Ian.
The band are more than Ian’s Dylan-like rasp and James’s bellowing bruise of a voice though. Violinist Greg Farley adds gorgeous melodies to Wonderful life and a storming rendition of Run Chicken Run whilst bassist Christmas Clapton lays down the steadfast beat with drummer Dave Turbeville that allows Ian Felice’s ragged vocals an anchor to cling to as he clambers over the stage attacking his battered guitar.
For nearly two hours the band plow through their back catalog with its themes of love, crime, politics, shady characters and bad deals that inhabit the small towns of rural America soundtracked by gritty Americana and punk rock heart. Cus’s Catskill Gym is a brooding rocker that Steve Earle at his most belligerent would be proud of with its tale of small town pugilism.
The biggest cheer of the night appears as the first bars of ‘Frankie’s Gun’ are wrung out from the bands instruments. Each word sung from the stage shouted back by the sweaty, euphoric crowd. The band are belting out ‘Frankie’s..’ lyrics of a robbery gone wrong and petty crime is cinematic in its flow and encompasses everything that is great about the band. After a furious cover of Woody Guthrie’s Cumberland Gap and a perfect encore of Penn Station that ends with Ian and Christmas standing on the drums its over and the audience exit into the cool west London night warmed by the bonhomie of a true family party.
Photos by Anni timms