When I interviewed James Felice — founder and co-frontman of the upstate New York band The Felice Brothers — a couple weeks ago, I got the sense that he and his cohorts thrive on subverting the power and influence of their fans, their record label and anyone else who tries to burden them with the shackles of expectation.
“(We) have a sort of devil-may-care attitude about things,” Felice told me over the phone. “We want to ... play the kind of music we want to play, and if we can't do that we're not going to play music at all.”
The band's new album, “Celebration, Florida,” is proof of that. It's a weird, noisy, bleeps-and-beats record that clearly turns its back on the fervent folk-rock sound that made The Felice Brothers almost-famous over the past several years.
“It's not what we're into anymore,” James Felice said in our interview. “We still play the old songs and we do them the old way and we have fun. But ...”
I can fill in the rest for him. But The Felice Brothers are looking ahead and moving forward, and they'd prefer for everyone else to do the same.
The point of all this is to explain why the band's show at Bend's Silver Moon Brewing & Taproom on Monday night started off a little slow. They began with two older songs, “Murder By Mistletoe” and “Marlboro Man,” that were perfectly pretty, but lacked oomph.
As a result, the room did too. Silver Moon was certainly not packed, but comfortably crowded, especially for a Monday. And for the first 10 minutes of the show, the audience simply swayed and stared, as if waiting for the band to shift into another gear.
Then, the Brothers launched into “Fire at the Pageant,” one of the most rousing songs from “Celebration.”
And suddenly, everything changed.
To me, it seemed obvious that the new material energized the band, especially Greg Farley, who sawed intensely at his fiddle and thumped out electro-beats on a sampler, and James Felice, whose accordion became putty in his hands as he lost himself in the song.
James and his brother Ian are the focal point of the band's show, and they could not seem more different. Burly, gregarious James spent the evening in another space: arching his back, singing to the sky, staring down his mic like it was looking for a fight. He handled all the between-song banter.
Slight, shy Ian, on the other hand, handled most of the lead vocals, but otherwise shuffled around the stage nervously, occasionally turning to face the wall and rarely peering past his long bangs. Watching these two is like watching an apple and an orange, diametrically opposed, that fell from the same tree and decided to start a band.
Another “Celebration” song, the zigzagging “Honda Civic,” pumped more energy into the Moon, which carried through the night, even when the band did slower, twangier numbers like “Wonderful Life” and “Got What I Need” (a pair of beautiful melodies if ever there was one).
The Brothers rocked out Springsteen-style on “White Limo,” employed a murky disco vibe for “Ponzi,” and paid tribute to its past with a rollicking “Whiskey In My Whiskey,” featuring opener Gill Landry of Old Crow Medicine Show on vocals.
At one point, bassist Christmas (that's his name, just Christmas) took center stage on “Back in the Dancehalls,” which morphed into the most experimental song of the night. The Brothers adorned it with stuttering beats, ambient noise and trumpet played by a sixth guy who ran in, sat on a booth seat adjacent to the stage, played his part and then left.
The band wrapped its set with a revival-style cover of Townes Van Zandt's “Two Hands,” but before that, they did “Take This Bread,” a tale of love and brotherhood with a chorus that goes:
“Take this bread if you need it friend.
‘Cause I'm alright if you're alright.
I ain't got a lot, but all I got you're welcome to it.
‘Cause I'm alright if you're alright.”
It was a genuinely emotional and affecting sentiment from a band that seems to have left behind naked, natural earnestness and retreated into the dense obscurity of its own sound.