Felice Brothers

Americana with hip-hop beats and added synths – the brothers get the barmaids singing along

Belfast has been waiting a while for this gig. Previously scheduled by the Open House Festival programmers for December 2011, a dose of shingles within the band led to a raincheck. As a consequence this double dose of Americana is the vanguard of the 2012 festival in June.

Mr Hold Steady, Craig Finn, takes to the stage (replacing original support act AA Bondy) to showcase his solo side project album Clear Heart Full Eyes. Backed by twin guitars, drums and pedal steel guitar, Finn – as always a restless blur of onstage energy – quickly has the packed Spring & Airbrake audience in his thrall.

After the slow build of 'Apollo Bay' and 'Terrified Eyes', the pedal steel is abandoned and another guitar is added to the fray.

Highlights include the beefed up boogie of 'My Friend Jesus' and 'Honolulu Blues', as well as the sad, slow tale of marital dissolution that is 'Rented Room', wherein the singer admits that 'I should be getting over you. Certain things are really hard to do when you’re living in a rented room.'

Open House Festival director Kieran Gilmore takes to the stage to welcome and introduce The Felice Brothers, who currently consist of James and Ian Felice as well as their cousin Christmas Clapton. Fiddle player Greg Farley and drummer Dave Turbeville complete the line-up.

Opener 'Murder by Mistletoe' acts as a manifesto for what the band set out to do tonight. James Felice’s delicate accordion props up singer Ian’s wistful croak as he promises to 'sing an Elvis song, just to hear the barmaids sing along'. It isn’t long before most of the crowd is singing along too.

This is a band who have built up a fanbase who hold the Felice’s ramshackle brilliance close to their hearts. From the raucous rowdiness of 'Run Chicken Run' (like ’66 Dylan played by The Pogues in their pomp) to the delicate lament of 'Hey Hey Revolver', this is a band who seem to have distilled all that is pure and good in folk and country music and served it up as a new, refreshing brew.

What sets The Felice Brothers apart from their Americana/Alt-Country contemporaries is their willingness to add to the mix. It’s this approach that sees fiddler Farley move from frenzied bowing to operating a sampler, playing synth drums or jerkily dancing along to hiphop beats.

This approach is highlighted in airings of songs from their most recent album Celebration, Florida, including 'Fire at the Pageant', which incorporates sampled childrens’ laughter, hand claps and other ‘found’ audio into a country call and response song.

Bass player Christmas takes a lead vocal on 'Honda Civic', and Craig Finn joins the band to help with the mass sing-a-long of 'Frankie’s Gun!'.

It was almost inevitable that on this night before St Patrick’s Day, burly, bearded audience favourite James would steal the show with a rambunctious (and quite possibly inebriated) performance of 'Whiskey In My Whiskey'.

More songs follow, and there is an encore or two before the night is over and the crowd disperse, excitedly exchanging opinions of just how special the performance, the band and the night has been.

As I make my way to the exit, I’m sure I hear a barmaid sing a snatch of a Felice tune. No Elvis song was needed tonight.

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