What an evening. Newtown Social Club, Sydney, is a small, cosy venue. Dark carpet on the floor, dark carpet on the stage. Light good smell of beer. Lost Ragas jump on stage right after 8.30 PM – four guys who play well-crafted country blues. Shane Reilly performs on the pedal steel, while singer Matt Walker counterpoints on his own guitar, alternating ballads with enthralling rock tunes. Together with drummer Simon Burke and bass player Roger Bergodaz they make a tight-knit band who successfully interacts with the audience. With songs like Phantom Ride and Marijuana Mornings they perfectly set the atmosphere for acclaimed folk five-piece The Felice Brothers.
Touring on the back of 2014 album Favorite Waitress, New York-based band has also opened and played as band for American singer-songwriter (and leader of Bright Eyes) Conor Oberst, saving two shows for themselves. The first was in Melbourne at the Toff In Town on Sunday March 1; the second is the one I am telling you about. As some of you may know, “felice” means “happy” in Italian and it comes to be the surname of brothers Ian, vocals and guitar, and James, the sensational accordionist. Other members are drummer David Estabrook, bassist Josh “Christmas Clapton” Rawson and, last but not least, fiddler Greg Farley. Founder, poet and multi-instrumentalist Simone Felice, the older brother, left the group a few years ago to pursue his career as a solo musician as well as member of duo The King And The Duke.
Since the very beginning of the concert, one thing is clear: this band has at least two souls. On one hand there’s Ian, who sings with his eyes closed for most of the time and with his poses, at times melancholic, at times angry, makes me think of old grunge and shoegaze groups. He stands on the right side of the stage (from the public’s perspective), together with likewise wistful and subdued Josh. On the opposite side there’s Greg, who never stays still. In the middle, like a piece of glue, are David and James. The latter is clearly born to be onstage. He is completely at ease, looks you in the eye and sometimes he glances up as if he could talk directly to God. His outward personality dominates and galvanizes the whole show. He can plausibly dress the part of an extremely joyful storyteller in outstanding tune Whiskey in My Whiskey, addressing the sing-a-long audience with his full-bodied voice while masterfully playing the accordion, and then turn into a gloomy minstrel with a raspy, expressive voice in heartfelt, country ballad Got What I Need, during which all other band mates leave the stage, except for his brother Ian, who plays a rueful melody on his old guitar.
The concert begins with Meadow Of A Dream, off their latest album, and ends with an unexpected and incandescent cover of Neil Young’s classic Rocking In The Free World, turned into a hard rock tune. The setlist wisely alternates cheerful songs and lulling ballads. Most of the songs come from Favorite Waitress and Cus’s Catskill Gym, off from synth-dominated 2011 album Celebration, Florida, sound a little out of place among all those Americana-filled melodies – I loved it. After all, its “la-la-la-la” is even more irresistible live.
And that’s what an enthusiastically received performance such as the one Felice Brothers delivered on March, 7 in Sydney, teaches us – they sound better live than on their records. Despite the relatively young age, they are true professionals.