The Felice Brothers at Lincoln Hall, Chicago 5/6/11

There’s a funny thing about opening bands that I’ve found over the years. I’ve never once said that a show was made by an opening act, but I’ve had plenty of shows ruined by them. The most terrible example would be the duo Buke and Gass, who I saw open for The National in Minneapolis. They were SO bad that it was all I could think about for most of the show. As Mr. Berninger and co. were doing their thing on stage, I was pondering how two people could be so completely void of talent and not realize it. There have been others, a band called Cupcake that opened up for Third Eye Blind (though that concert was kinda destined for a bad review), Lifehouse opening for Matchbox Twenty-and it goes on. I had to leave during a set by Early Day Miners opening for Wilco at Purdue.

So I felt both relief and joy when I walked in to Lincoln Hall on Friday and found Shovels and Rope on stage, playing exactly the kind of music I would hope to hear before The Felice Brothers. These two have been around for a few years, but they only have one release together under this moniker. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent play the kind of down-home music that you would expect from their South Carolina roots.

Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst

They traded back and forth between drums and guitar, while both sang from each position. They were capable of creating a full band feel and kept things fresh with songs varying in style. Michael, for the most part, reminded me of the Nik Freitas show I saw a couple weeks back. He’s not quite country, not quite blues or folk, either. He mixes the three together into a kind of Texas honkytonk that goes over very well with a live audience.

Cary Ann reminds me more of a Dolly Parton-type country belle. Her voice goes low and high with equal quality and she speaks with a strong southern twang that I found endearing, even though most people with southern accents drive me insane. She also seemed to be the better guitar player of the two, wielding the axe with confidence and slaying the crowd.

The Felice Brothers eventually took the stage after an excruciatingly long delay. I’m not sure what they were waiting for, as the tech guys had everything set up about 30 or 40 minutes before they finally hit the stage. Maybe they were waiting for the show to sell out. Whatever it was, I was annoyed. I would’ve waited all night, though. I’ve been waiting to see these guys for a long time.

Greg Farley, James Felice, Ian Felice

With the new album Celebration, Florida due out in a couple days, I expected them to play some new material, but they played a LOT. I’m glad they did, too. A lot of the new stuff is completely different from the albums that precede it. There’s more funk, more synth, more weird. More everything. A lot of the newer songs are a bit hard to describe. If you like The Felice Brothers, you’ll most likely enjoy them, but if you aren’t a fan, I don’t think that these will win you over. I got some video of one of the new songs, “Back In The Dancehalls.” It is done almost totally by Christmas Clapton:

There were a couple things I thought of during this show that I keep coming back to: 1. Ian Felice can really play! Sometimes it’s hard when you listen to a CD to know who’s playing what or how much was done in production to make things come out the way the did, but live, you can’t fake it. His solos were electric even though he had at least two issues during the show (one was a broken string, and the other was a bad connection from his guitar). 2. I have no problem believing that every Felice Brothers show is completely different.

Having seen a good number of big shows in my concert-going lifetime, I sometimes get bored with overproduced, choreographed shows. I remember seeing U2 at the United Center in May of 2008 and thinking “This stage is so elaborate, how could it possibly be any fun for the band?” Of course, U2 was having their fun afterwards when their tour was the biggest seller of the year and they walked away even bigger millionaires than before. But The Felice Brothers don’t seem to care all that much about money.

The onstage chemistry between the brothers and their pals, Greg Farley, Christmas, and Dave Tuberville was good throughout the show. I think Greg is kind of the unsung hero of the band at times. He plays one hell of a fiddle, but he’s also a bit like the bands cheerleader when he isn’t doing the Charlie Daniels thing. It’s pretty good fun just watching him up there, having a blast with his best friends. If I were ever in a band (again) that’s the part I’d like to play.

The Felice Brothers put on a fun show, and the audience was eating out of their hands, especially when they played popular songs like “White Limo” and “Run Chicken Run.”  The whole thing was done like a medley it seemed. Rarely did the band take breathers between songs, and some of them just flat out ran into one another. That kept the energy high, and didn’t let anyone dwell too long on the song that came before, forcing everyone to be in the present. A good idea when you play the porch-stompers that these guys do.

If you haven’t seen them before, I can’t urge you enough to check them out. And if you’re on the fence about picking up Celebration, Florida, just get it. I haven’t heard the whole thing, but what I heard at the show was easily enough to sway even the most waffling of fans.

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