it’s hard to suck with christmas in your band;
So it’s a Saturday night and there’s this party that you don’t really want to go to, but you know that boy you like is going to be there so you put on a pretty dress and your favourite lipstick anyway and drag yourself along. You’re a little nervous because you haven’t seen the boy in a while, and you don’t really know the guys whose party it is – but then it turns out that the boy hasn’t really changed that much and the guys actually throw the best St Patrick’s Day party in town.
The Felice Brothers have crossed my radar a few times, as a band who fuse such disparate elements of folk and country with – well, we’ll get to that – are wont to do when you read all the same blogs; so I’d formed what I had thought was a pretty solid opinion of them based on the music-box vintage of songs like “St Stephen’s End” and the storm-in-a-barn that is “Frankie’s Gun!” (the one which, according to Wikipedia, was even played on E4′s Skins). I was surprised the ABC was so empty when we arrived for the traditional Saturday night early doors because I’d wrongly assumed from a survey of my own demographic that it was Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn’s opening slot in support of his solo album Clear Hearts Full Eyes that was the main attraction. However the Brothers (two remain in the five-piece band after original drummer Simone Felice left to pursue his own projects – a self-titled album comes out in April and my other gig is running an evocative series of exclusive video features in anticipation) have the sort of raucous following it’s hard to imagine for a country band – probably because they’re like no country band I have ever witnessed.
They open with “Murder By Mistletoe” which, as I discover later, on record is the sort of frosty festive murder ballad I build my Christmas mixes around. Tonight, perhaps in honour of that annual festival in which the Scottish and American peoples join forces to celebrate a country that isn’t theirs with silly hats and sillier amounts of alcohol, it takes on a raucous celtic-punk edge; Ian’s nasal voice as forlorn as the ex-pat house band in a New York Irish-themed pub while brother James wheels and lurches behind his accordion.
To me Greg Farley, to the left of the stage with a fiddle and a box full of unexpected electronic samples, is the star of the bunch. Off-mic he spits out the lyrics to “Run Chicken Run” as if he should be a rapper and the way he interacts with his bandmates – James Felice on the accordion in particular – makes me wish I’d brought my decent camera after all. When he mischievously runs across the stage to beat on a bongo drum with a pair of discarded sticks you wonder whether it’s scripted or exuberance, even although it sounds so together you know it has to be the former, and there’s a bizarrely literal interlude on “Take This Bread” where he showers the audience with slices from a pan loaf. Although the slower numbers do drag down a tremendously fun set a little the band’s enthusiasm is mostly infectious – which is, I suppose, the least you can expect from a lineup that includes a former travelling dice player called Christmas.
Infectious even among those of us who, by that stage, had slipped a little further towards the back because the sheer heat and the sheer joy from the fans closer to the stage was a little bit much to take in a venue that scalps you the amount the ABC does for a gin and tonic. And it only seemed fair, because they were good to those of us Unified Scene who were there for a first listen to Craig Finn’s new material accompanied by his new band Some Guns. I’ve been incredibly lax in reviewing Clear Hearts, Full Eyes, which suffered from sharing a January release date with the solo album from the frontman of another of my favourite bands, the Weakerthans’ John K. Samson. It’s fair to say you learn to expect something from a particular voice and although Finn’s solo material isn’t so radical a departure lyrically from his work with the Hold Steady it’s certainly presented in a much more subdued manner than the day job’s back-in-the-bar-band blues. As you’d expect, of course – although Finn is the lyricist for the Hold Steady it’s normally guitarist Tad Kuebler who puts together the melodies.
I’ve heard the album called many things, perhaps most surprisingly – because I don’t tend to seek out the gossip surrounding my favourites and neither does Grazia magazine – Finn’s “divorce record” (by the way, the linked chat with Guardian journalist Michael Hann is probably one of the best I’ve read). The same Catholic references that unilaterally permeate Finn’s work are present in force – he name-checks Jesus twenty times on the record to Freddie Mercury’s once, and even gives his “new friend” a whole song to himself” – but the fictionalised characters are not. Songs like “Rented Room” and, in particular, album closer “Not Much Left Of Us” go straight for the jugular:
she used to take off her tights
turn out the lights
get into bed she fit me just right
my pillow still tastes like her perfume
sometimes lonely is easy, sometimes together’s too tough.
I listen again and marvel at these nuances I missed first time around, as if I was not adult enough to understand and needed the marvellous Some Guns to help me unlock their mysteries. They’re not my favourite band of course, but they’d only annoy me if they were trying to ape them.
Felice Brothers on tour with Craig Finn and Some Guns
TOMORROW! London, Koko
22/03 Brussels, AB Box
23/03 Nijmegen, Doornroosje
24/03 Gronigen, Oosterpoort
26/03 Berlin, Postbanhof
27/03 Utrecht, Tivoli
Craig Finn and Some Guns play their first UK headline show at Hoxton Square Bar on Thursday, 29th March. No, I won’t be there. The Hold Steady’s sixth record will hopefully appear later this year.
PS I’ve been asked to point you towards a free download from the Felice Brothers’ latest album, 2011′s Celebration Florida – see “Cus’s Catskill Gym” below. You can buy a t-shirt for said fictional gym if you catch the band on tour – unfortunately, with Glasgow so near to the end of the UK run, you’ll be going out of your way to do so.