The pairing of the famous locals the Felice Brothers and the colorful New Paltz acoustic quartet Yard Sale was a no-duh natural, and it is almost surprising how long it took to materialize. Both bands operate squarely in the deus loci tradition of Dylan and the Band. Both play an irreverent, surreal, gutsy and bastard Americana with porous stylistic borders and a self-issued carte blanche permission to do whatever the f*ck they please without having to consult any Roots Reenactor High Council. There is an interesting difference, however, in how each gets to this place. Executive summary: The Felice Brothers are more Dylan, Yard Sale more Band. Read on.
Yard Sale is group of savvy, even chopsy players who have, in their other pursuits, been all over the musical map before arriving at the progressive Americana/soul sweet spot in evidence all over their excellent new record Every Day (on Team Love Records, which played a big part in the early Felice Bros. story as well) In their fierce and delicate playing, there is no sense of that delirious naïveté that – at one time, at least – defined the Felice aesthetic.
I once pissed off my older brother (who knows a lot more about music than I do) by saying that the Band was not really an Americana group, but rather a smart Canadian commentary thereupon. I don’t remember if he smacked me physically or if he just snarked something like, “What a pretty thing to say.” Yard Sale looks for all the world like a bluegrass band, with banjo, upright bass, fiddle, acoustic guitar and a baying call-and-response vocal strategy right out of the Helm/Danko/Manuel playbook. But many currents of music, from funk and soul to classic country to arty indie-rock, can be detected in their sawing and hollering (just like The Brown Album reminds me of nothing so much as electric Aaron Copland at times). Like the Band’s, this music is proudly impure, and also something that approaches virtuosic –maybe not Punch Brothers virtuosic, but certainly “pretty damn slick.” They can’t even fudge musical innocence and the willing primitive vibe, and they wisely don’t try.
What makes it really fly is that this is one of the better two-songwriter bands afoot around here at the moment. From principal songwriter Taylor Davis comes much of the band’s sense of free-flowing American myth and Old-World authenticity. Charlie Schickowitz, on the other hand, is a thoughtful and intentional writer in a topical folk mode – a man with several very specific axes to grind regarding contemporary culture. The contrast gives Every Day a rich, paradoxical feel: It honors the twin calling of roots music as both a repository of haunted myths and lost worlds and as the newsy, populist vehicle by which the present understands itself.
At their outset, the Felice Brothers might as well have named themselves the Zimmermen, and, as long as Ian is Ian, the little Bob in him will speak its piece, for it is his writ in his physical and spiritual code. This is where it pays to remember that Dylan himself was a smartass suburban culture thief, too: a hat-lover, not a blood-and-soil original or a saint. As with fellow hat-lover Tom Waits, a well-informed modern-art intent was always part of his folk/roots plundering and a part of his legacy, which Ian Felice has understood and received well.
As soon as you thought you knew what the Felice Brothers were – a ramshackle roots/rock band driven mostly by the lyrics of the modernist weird-folk poet at the helm – they stabilized their vessel with a new drummer and released the intentional knuckleball Celebration, Florida: a rather convincing indie electro-rock record without a hint of throaty Harmony archtop or WPA jonesing on it. It seemed largely like the band’s way of shedding the roots costume before it trussed and strangled them. (To be fair and to their credit, this upstate band never dressed themselves in costly period garb like so many of their infuriating poor-geoisie peers did). Now they do whatever they please, and what they please usually tends toward their basal setting of delightfully ramshackle roots/rock with 21st-century sonic accents.
It has been a busy year for the Felice Brothers, but in a desultory and disguised way. A big lift in the band’s career story was an early (and lasting) association with the Millennial-darling bard Connor Oberst. Now, The Brothers F. do their old pal and advocate a solid, playing backing band (except with Jim f*&king Keltner on the drum stool) on 2017’s Salutations, an excellent, rocking collection of real-life-crisis songs from Oberst – as wordy and wild and talented as ever, if you still have a place for him.
When Ian Felice decided to do a solo album, 2017’s fuss-free In the Kingdom of Dreams, the original Felice Brothers assembled to lend low-key support to this quiet set of surreal folksongs. The eldest sibling, solo artist Simone, returned to the scene as drummer and producer. That the Felice family syndicate can do one record with Jim Keltner drumming and one with Simone Felice, and sound great on both, says something poignant about them, though I am not sure what. The band’s arc is one that moves from musical naïveté to musical savvy, but with a carefully guarded sense of innocence at the core, for they have always recognized that stately, earnest “eternal beginners” feel as their secret sauce.
In the early days of 2018, the Felice Brothers announced that two decade-long members of the outfit – fiddle-player Greg Farley and bassist Josh Rawson – would be leaving the band. So the moment finds the Felice Brothers perforce at another point of transformation. Who even knows what to expect when Radio Woodstock presents the Felice Bothers at the Bearsville Theater, with Yard Sale opening, on Friday, March 23 at 8 p.m.?
Ticket prices range from $25 to $45. For tickets and additional information, visit www.bearsvilletheater.com. The Bearsville Theater is located at 291 Tinker Street in Woodstock.