A few nights ago I had the great pleasure of seeing The Felice Brothers for the fourth time. This show was part of the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival, and the bill also brought solid sets from Drew Holcomb and Justin Townes Earle. I’d never been to the brand new Concord Music Hall, and I was quite pleased with the sound system and overall experience. It isn’t as big as I thought it would be, but the space is used well, with a main floor area and balconies on either side of the stage. They get great bands there pretty consistently, so I can’t wait for my next trip out there.
My friend and I got in about halfway through Holcomb’s solo set. Billed as Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors, I guess the rest of his band couldn’t make it. No matter-his voice and guitar was enough to win us over. I’m not too familiar with his work, so I didn’t know any of the songs he was singing, but they were well-written and delivered with sincerity.
Around 10pm Justin Townes Earle took to the stage, also by himself. I was a little confused because the way the show was listed, it seemed like Earle would be the headliner. Giving the spot to The Felice Brothers was fine with me. I like Justin Townes Earle, but I don’t find his music as interesting as TFB. I recently saw both of them at Way Over Yonder Fest in Santa Monica, and Earle’s set was marred by some technical difficulties. No such problems on this night, as he whisked through an hour of tunes both new and old.
Earle was pretty chatty in between songs, letting slip a couple nuggets like the fact that he’s headed to St Louis next month to record a double album. It’s going to be released as two separate records, with one coming in the spring and one in the fall. I think he said one of the records will be called Single Moms. He had some disparaging words for southern Utah (jokingly, of course), the state where he currently resides. And he said that he was approached by a label to release his next album and he told them to get lost. Maybe it was because he was so talkative, but the crowd noise was pretty heavy during his set. I was right up front and the people around me were all paying attention, but it was definitely a problem for anyone more than four rows back that wanted to hear.
Around 11 Ian and James came out and prepared their instruments for the show. I was happy to see that the crowd had not only stuck around, but grown since Earle finished up. The friend I came with had never heard The Felice Brothers before, and after the first three songs he couldn’t contain his admiration. I’ve been telling him to check the band out since 2008, but I guess a free ticket to a show speaks louder than my recommendations.
I was a little surprised by a couple of omissions from the set list: no “White Limo,” no “Fire At The Pageant.” Instead they focused on a lot of up tempo stuff from their first and second album. They did play “Marie” off of their MIxtape album, and I’d never seen them play that live before. I love the way they so quickly switch things up on the vocals, going from James, to Ian , to Christmas on lead vocals. Even Greg Farley got into the mix a couple times. They did slow it down a little bit on songs like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Cooperstown,” but for the most part it was full steam ahead. They even ended with a version of Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World.”
They didn’t exactly live up to the “Bluegrass & Blues” music that the festival title would lead you to expect for the most part, but they did deliver one of the finest performances I’ve seen in a while. And a couple of the highlights for me were very much in line with the roots of the festival: songs like “Cumberland Gap,” “Whiskey In My Whiskey,” and my personal favorite of the evening, a suped up version of “Lincoln Continental” off of the God Bless You Amigo record.
The crowd was easily the best I’ve seen The Felice Brothers play for. Everyone was singing/screaming along and dancing or stomping the floor. And when they did play a quieter song, the audience got quiet with them. It was hard to tell who was feeding off the energy in the room more. Farley was his usual spastic self, running around the stage whipping his fiddle and acting as the bands hype man when he wasn’t playing. He even brought out a washboard at one point and played so hard I’m surprised he didn’t bleed all over the thing.
If you have yet to get into The Felice Brothers, there’s no time like the present. I’d start with their first album and work your way forward, but their music doesn’t really require that if you don’t feel like it. They have a timeless quality due to their integration of Appalachian folk roots and Ian Felice’s haunting voice. This was their first Chicago show for a while, so hopefully we won’t have to wait as long in between for the next one. You can check out some more pics from the show on our Facebook page.