The Felice Brothers: Reluctant Rebels of Rock's New Americana Movement

Just as its rootsy sound comes in vogue, this folk-influenced quintet gets experimental.
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A week ago, playing at Brooklyn's Bell House for the second of two sold-out shows, the Felice Brothers told the room to chill out.

"Everybody calm down," sang Ian Felice, delivering the chorus for "Fire at the Pageant," the first track of the upstate New York quintet's latest album, Celebration, Florida. "Go on the run / Call 9-1-1 / Calm down, calm down, calm down."

The crowd--a mixed lot of frat boys, bearded hipsters, gamine hippie girls and blue-collar guys in construction boots--happily ignored the instructions, instead electing for a rapturous singalong with plenty of dancing. Up on stage, the five guys choreographed a perfect panic, with the help of guitars, drums, fiddle, accordion, and a keyboard.

A Spin article recently threw the Brothers in with a supposedly rising "Americana" movement--though cuter names like "hobohemian" and "chillbilly" were floated--marked by washboard-laden instrumentation and hummable, heartfelt choruses. Ironically, the platinum-selling posterboys for the scene, Mumford and Sons, hail from the UK. That band provided the genre's national coming-out by jamming with Bob Dylan and North Carolina's Avett Brothers at the Grammys in February. The Felice Brothers, who are now selling out shows and have toured with the likes of Dave Matthews Band and Conor Oberst, may just be up next for wider success.

But the Brothers, in the grand tradition of the reluctant buzzband, shrug off the latest labels to be applied to them. Perhaps out of that defiance, they've recorded a new album of distinctively modern, experimentally tweaked music that nevertheless maintains a bit of that old-timey appeal. "We don't feel like we are part of the folk thing," keyboardist and accordionist James Felice told me, sitting in the back of a pickup truck before the Bell House show. "I think I identify more with Wu-Tang than with Crosby, Stills, and Nash."

You can hear what he's talking about on Celebration, Florida, released earlier this month. Named for what could be the most American neighborhood in America--the master-planned community designed by the Walt Disney Company--the album represents a departure from the rootsy, acoustic sound many longtime fans are accustomed to. Recorded beginning in March 2010 in an abandoned high school in Beacon, New York, the songs feature heavy bass lines, samples, synthesizers, found sounds, and bracing horns.

The result is a creepy, catchy listen that manages to capture a supernatural sense of dread as it portrays the everyday tragedies of degenerates, lost youth, and the tragic beauty particular to the greatest American storytellers. "Ponzi" depicts the personal side of a Wall Street scandal, and the haunting "Cus's Catskills Gym" taps into the pathos behind the story of the young Mike Tyson.

The Felice Brothers - Ponzi from Ravenhouse LTD. on Vimeo.

When we talked, James Felice and bassist Christmas Clapton discussed a long list of influences for Celebration, Florida. Not one of those influences was Mumford and Sons. Clapton mentioned Lil Wayne and Deerhunter. James cited the career of Neil Young as an inspiration. "He does anything he wants," James said of Young. "His music is really, really weird. And I respect that a lot."

Since forming in 2006, the band has built its fan base in large part by adhering to a punishing tour schedule--traveling in what James affectionately referred to as a "piece-of-shit Winnebago."  "We tour all the time to make money to eat and survive," Clapton said. "But we love to play every day, and travel, and make strange music."

The road experience helps explains the band's continued ability to click with a live audience, even as they push their sound into less-straightforward territory. When I saw them play on their home turf of Hudson, New York in March of this year, there was a collective swoon as Ian sang an achingly sweet solo tribute to his mother. The moment was something like the eye of a hurricane passing over: The crowd soon then went nuts for the new material worked into the set. With fiddle player Greg Farley jumping atop Dave Turbeville's bass drum to share a microphone on a raucous chorus, and James swinging his accordion menacingly over his head on the way to the keyboard, it all seemed to fit right into the band's traditional tumbledown, full-speed-ahead performing style. Nobody in the sweat-drenched audience seemed much concerned with labels.