By Brian Tucker
(originally published in Performer Magazine)
March 5, 2008 – The Soapbox, Wilmington, NC
In a warm and raucous way The Felice Brothers made a living room out of the Soapbox stage. The band chose not to occupy the whole thing but ignore it, positioning themselves at the front edge with drummer Simone Felice at the left. They told the crowd, “come in close, get up here.” The sentiment seemed to say it all.
The evening felt like homecoming, the interaction of players and listeners, as if in the family room telling stories. James Felice stood center with his accordion and wide brimmed, black hat. He lifted a bottle of whiskey over his head and summarily passed it around. Simone Felice was the band’s energy pellet – nuclear, not coal. He hit the drums fiercely, hard enough to break, stood tall on the seat, towered over everything, and entered the crowd’s space. The bass drum had Time magazine’s Putin Man of the Year cover taped to it.
“My uncle used to tell us stories about murder and crime in Queens growing up,” lead singer Ian Felice spoke casually into the microphone. “Used to scare the shit out of me.”
The lengthy set moved from sentimental (“Ruby Mae”) to funky (“Radio Song”) to carnival-like (“Frankie’s Gun,” “Greatest Show on Earth”), songs draped in acoustic soul. The band stood close, huddled around the microphone. Ian hunched over, like an old man singing songs he’s told so many times before. His voice was seasoned, graveled yet sweet. James switched from accordion to keyboard and the empty bottle of whiskey appeared, thrown nonchalantly under his feet. Ian and Simone switched instruments as Simone sang a song “about trying to do something good but the devil keeps at you.”
Songs were introduced as stories passed down to the brothers – “Wanna hear one about a boxer who gets killed in the ring?” or, “This is a song about scumbags trying to earn enough money to support their kids.”
Mid-set the band slowed things down with the moving “Wonderful Life.” Simone introduced the song as “about playing on the road, getting hurt, falling in love.” Ian sang it gently and proud, sharing pain while eerily channeling the past – be it Bob Dylan or The Band. The band played songs that captured the wear and tear of life, the love and pain.
A young girl speaks to Ian and he learns it’s her birthday. Simone talks again, “We’ve been singing all these songs about sex and murder so we’re gonna sing a church song.”
Ian invites the birthday girl up there with them. “C’mon, birthday girl,” he says coolly. Shortly thereafter the dynamic switches – the whole stage behind the band is filled with folks from the crowd as the band plays “Glory, Glory.”