THE FELICE BROTHERS, an itinerant gaggle of kids mostly from outside of Woodstock, New York, talk, sing, look and act as if they have emerged from the forest—Rip Van Winkle style—circa 1967. Or better yet—1867, or some other mythical time when “authentic” folk singers performed in chicken coops, were professional dice players and didn’t communicate much with the outside world. After a few years living out of a bus, and propagating their folk mythology through two self-released albums, the Felice Brothers signed to Conor Oberst’s Team Love label, and released an eponymous “brick and mortar” debut, and last year’s Yonder is the Clock.
Harry Smith, the archivist behind the Anthology of American Folk Music, sought to document the hidden pockets of old time idiom in an effort to create a mythology no less immense than the early American literary greats like Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain, and investigating the roots of American folk and rock and roll revealed a story of the struggle between the authentic and the inauthentic voice. In the ‘60s, when white artists considered refraining from copping a feel of the storied struggle of the blues and the black blues idiom, they turned to the “authenticity” of Appalachia; the adoption was less exploitative if no less explicit.
Journalist Greil Marcus, known mostly for books that placed rock music within American literary history and thereby stretched the boundaries of and uses for rock criticism (Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic), documented a strain of this movement in his underrated Mystery Train. He wrote: “there have been great American artists who have worked beyond the public’s ability to understand them easily, but none who have condescended to the public … This is a democratic desire (not completely unrelated to the all-time number one democratic desire for endless wealth and fame), and at its best it is an impulse to wholeness, an attempt not to deny diversity, or to hide from it, but to discover what it is that diverse people can authentically share.”
In his documentary of the project to remake America through gathering stories, Marcus’ hero is Randy Newman. Newman, tragically best known for his trifle “I Love L.A.,” stands as the artist simultaneously most respectful and most sinister in digesting and transforming the American folk idiom. Populating his songs with characters from the margins of America (illiterates, bigots, racists, rapists, simpletons and freaks), Newman creates unsympathetic characters and gives them voice to make their strongest case. In the fetishization of America’s true nature, Newman praises as he mocks.
The Felice Brothers would be easily at home in a Randy Newman song. Their music doesn’t merely wink at authenticity: earnestness is the band’s bread and butter. Their records share their backwoods American story; imagine Twice-Told Tales: The Musical. The group’s most recent album, Yonder is the Clock, is titled with a phrase drawn from the pages of Mark Twain but is full of common folk themes, dealing with love, death, betrayal, train stations and jail cells. Many songs match the inevitability of “Old Kentucky Home” and “Birmingham” — stories that, having germinated in the unexamined American imagination for decades, now scream to be told.
And lead singer Ian Felice does a fair amount of screaming. When he’s not crooning or speaking, his vocal stylings can sure pack a wallop; think Bob Dylan by way of Conor Oberst. The rest of the band is made up of Ian’s brothers: drummer Simone and accordionist and pianist James; bass player (and dice player) Christmas (no joke!), and some fellow named Greg. The Felice Brothers’ finest song, “Frankie’s Gun!” is a rambling and ramshackle tale of road-trips and betrayal—heavy on the slide piano and accordion. Another song, the lovely “Love Me Tenderly,” cribs Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”
“Randy Newman is my hero! I listen to him religiously and think he’s one of the most underappreciated composers for contributions to American music,” James Felice said in an interview with me a few years back. When I mentioned “Simon Smith,” Felice continued: “Wow. You kind of got us. You know, you’re the first person to catch that. I can’t speak for the whole band, but I personally love Newman, and it was kind of a coincidence that it sounds similar. I guess when we made that song, I guess we kind of ripped off the melody there. But I just hope he likes the song; I think he would.”
But the tradition in which the Felice Brothers are working encourages that kind of re-contextualizing: “If you listen to the Delta Blues musicians, or other old time players, they were always reinterpreting the songs of others. And Bob [Dylan] of course was as well. He still sort of does it; but the first few albums were basically songs that were rewritten from the folk tradition.”
The Felice Brothers’ most endearing quality is their earnestness—which is not to be confused with an attempt at authenticity. Queried about the “No Depression” movement, the lovers of so-called “authentic music,” Felice fired back: “We don’t care about trying to sound authentic. You know, I think once you start caring about sounding authentic, then you’re not. We just play music and play the music we love to play. And if people think it’s authentic, then it is because we’re not sitting around and trying to manufacture what we do. And so I guess with this “Americana” thing — I guess that’s the kind of music we play, but we don’t think about it that much.”
Saturday, Nov. 20, The Felice Brothers return to Castaways for an early 8pm rock show that is sure to go late (Advance tickets are $15 and $20 at the door.)