The Felice Brothers had a right to look perfectly bedraggled under the stage lights at Higher Ground. As Ian Felicde related early in the set, their bus had broken down enroute to Vermont while sibling James had been in the hospital earlier in the day with pink eye (hence his intro of a tune later in the set as “the conjunctivitis version).
Of course, there’s never been anything very pretty about The Felice Brothers, music-wise or otherwise. No question they connect with people, at least here in the Burlington area: this latest performance was their first in the larger of the two rooms at the venue and the audience passion was out of proportion to their number (similar in size though much deeper in feeling than the recent North Mississippi Allstars show)
There is a palpable, poignant beauty at the heart of many of The Felices’ original songs, which may be what touches an audience growing incrementally with each of the band’s visits here. Or it may be the rowdyism in tunes such as “Whiskey in My Whisky,” which couldn’t have sounded more appropriate on a Saturday night.
More likely, though, the attraction is something even more elusive, in keeping with the sounds of the theme song from David Lunch’s cult classic Twin Peaks playing over the sound system just before the band took the stage. While The Felice Brothers included older material like “Frankie’s Gun” as well as more recent tunes such as “Run Chicken Run” from the splendid Yonder Is the Clock, they proceeded through all the tunes in tight streamlined fashion from start to finish, right up to "River Jordan" that ended the single set, radiating a sense of inevitability, but even more so a sense of relief. The twin sensations of repulsion and attraction at the heart of their best material can threaten to become a sensory overload, this night most deceptively delivered in the form of Ian and bassist Christmas Clapton duetting alone on stage.
“It’s all planned out…” the former replied to some stagefront comment early in the evening and while that may well be true, it was nowhere near the robotic gait one wag at the back of the room complained about just prior to the group’s encore. This concert, on the contrary, found the band deliberately contemporizing their sound without sacrificing its rustic charm. Greg Farley divided his time almost equally between his fiddle and synthesized percussion, while James Felice alternated between accordion and a piano/organ set up, the sound of which lent polish and modernity to the sound of the quintet. In addition, new drummer Dave Turbeville’s abandoned playing lent a drive to the band missing since Simone Felice left the group (to form The Duke & The King).
Fortunately, the Felice Brothers will probably never come across as too conventional.
Just as Ian, he of the raspy ragged voice, will never sound (or act) like a guitar hero, he will also never be afraid to look deep inside his rail-thin frame to find inspiration for a solo. And that, in a nutshell, may be what’s most seductive about this music: there’s some tantalizing mystery deep in the heart of it and no one who hears even a hint of that can resist hearing it some more.