My brother moved to Hove many years ago. More sedate than its brash next-door cousin, Brighton, he often told me about this independent venue that was walking distance from his flat and whose previous incarnation had been a BBC music theatre. The gig-goers of Brighton/Hove were different too, he said. “How do you mean?” I asked. “Give it five minutes,” he replied as we walked into the building. Five minutes in, a middle-aged middle class couple stood dead centre making-out all through the pin-drop moments in Carson McHone’s support set.
The Felice Brothers started quietly with ‘Jack At The Asylum’, from 2016’s ‘Life in the Dark’: “America / I’ve seen your guillotine, a fat boy, adrift, in a limousine”, sang Ian Felice, setting the lyrical stance straight out of the blocks. The title track of the latest album was up next and another plea to their homeland: “Undress, America Undress / republicans and democrats, even the evangelicals / yea lighten up, Undress.” James Felice stepping in with a dominant funky electric piano riff to replace the horn section featured on the record. “Will you play at our wedding?” yelled a woman during a quiet intro on the fourth song. “Huh? probably not” said James Felice, and, in an attempt to get some chat going with the rest of the crowd, added “So…… you’re a beach town yea ? We saw your beach …… ” he trailed off. It’s snowing in the Catskills now, so a stroll on the relatively balmy, breezy pebble beach on a January afternoon would be easy as pie for the band.
Indeed, last year’s ‘Undress’ LP released by YepRoc produced many of the highlights, including three played in quick succession, ‘Hometown Hero’, ‘Special Announcement’ (“Saving up my money, to be President / Charlie Parker on a ten dollar bill”) and ‘The Kid’. But there was plenty of dipping into the huge back catalogue with songs like the wonderfully sombre ‘Wonderful Life’. As an antidote to the melancholy came ‘Aerosol Ball’. The song evokes a room full of bright young things jitterbugging to Elvis with the “Doll of St Paul” as their spearhead and the song’s narrator lost in her every move. It was a crowd favourite here too but with less of the reckless abandon of youthful dancing, more bobbing heads and arms slightly raised.
Of the current line-up, my brother, who has an indie/classic ’60s bias and is unaware of current Americana acts declares “It’s like a country Sonic Youth”. Indeed, the FBs are now a tight band, with Felice lookalike Will Lawrence on drums and the beaming Jesske Lawrence a strong presence on bass. Both Lawrence and Hume add rich harmonies to the vocal. Don’t worry, though, despite the tightness the outfit have not lost their roots. There was a raw sound about the mix, particularly the drums, whether intentional or an accidental side effect of the acoustics of this very individual venue.
There’s an unexpected side to the show in songs where James takes lead vocal (‘Hometown Hero’, ‘Nail it on the First Try’). It’s an introspective, bittersweet, yearning reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s startling 1969 departure, ‘Watertown’). This is particularly evident in the latter track. Ian Felice plays a quirky piano riff as James, his fingers hesitating on the accordion keys, delivers a studied performance of the vocal (“Push the curtain aside / I need a straight shot at the sky / I’ve never been so scared in my life / then again I’ve never died, I think I’m gonna nail it on the first try”).
They closed the show with old songs including ‘Eyes Dart Around’, ‘Whiskey in my Whiskey’, the infectious ‘Cherry Licorice’ and of course ‘Frankie’s Gun’ and ‘Penn Station’, but the requests that were emanating from the crowd were (encouragingly) for future standards like the gentle rap of ‘Days Of The Years’ (“Watching a city turn in to sea, standing in water up to the knee, missing my stop on the City bus, in the land of propaganda”) and ‘Life in the Dark’.
Carson McHone had earlier performed a support set of lush sincerity. She ended her first song – ‘How ’Bout It’ hanging on the last ‘s’ of the lyric, “So how ’bout this..” pulling the audience in to the coda “I’ve got the blues / Got this feeling in my bones I can’t refuse.” Her eyes focused on an imaginary subject near the middle of the hall. I misheard the last word as “defuse” and thought, immediately, about writing of her smoking intensity – so I’ll use it anyway! It’s rare to find country songs that are so deep lyrically and she opens up about her influences: acting (she quotes Shakespeare) and Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds who she dedicated her song ‘Hawks Don’t Share’ to. At the end of ‘Drugs’, I’m sure she nodded to the Velvets by playing the drone guitar of ‘Heroin’ coupled with the chords of ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’. Her last song ‘Tried’, she described as “half a song,” but that was all she could say on the subject. Intriguing – I look forward to hearing it on her next album.
McHone had earlier alluded that the Felices were fun to hang around with. The night before, they had all attended the AMA-UK awards in Hackney. The FBs had performed, in fact they opened the show, compère Bob Harris singling them out as one of the key bands that he has championed since the early days of their career in 2006. They had played a sweet version of ‘The Kid’, Ian on lead vocals, even dressed in a crisp white shirt. The performance was one of the highlights of the awards night but perhaps got lost in the bigger event. Tonight was a different story, and ‘The Kid’ had already established itself as a sing-along favourite with their fans here – who have clearly recognised the album, ‘Undress’, as a latter-day classic.
As we leave I think about how I once bumped into the Felice Brothers, randomly, in downtown St Paul, Minnesota. They were standing in a little park, high up, looking out over the bulk loading terminals and the bridges that crossed the great Mississippi River as it cut downwards into the sedimentary rock below us forming the bluffs and cliffs that fringe the town. At the time I thought it appropriate that they were in that exact location as if placed by Whitman or Steinbeck. And then I thought about last night- the closing song of the AMA-UK awards and all the acts are on stage in groups of three, belting out the song into communal mics. The Felices are there too – but they stand, mic-less, stage-right, gently swaying, the real deal, genuine country songsmiths who marvel at the might of the Mississippi when they see it and who know when to leave the showboating to others.