BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER Impersonating The Band hasn’t been a decently-paying gig since Scorsese filmed The Last Waltz in 1976, but judging by the full-up crowd at the Trocadero Thursday night The Felice Brothers seem to be on their way. Actually, ‘impersonating’ sounds a little too dismissive and I like these guys, so let’s go with ‘evoking’ or ‘carrying on the old, weird Americana tradition’ of the Band instead. Besides, they have the pedigree (hail from upstate New York, sons of a carpenter) they’ve paid their dues (busked in the subways of New York; went acoustic at the Newport Folk Festival; woodshed-ed at Levon Helm’s Barn Burner) and, more importantly, they are naturals, having just released Yonder Is The Clock, their fifth casually brilliant album of the aforementioned old, weird Americana.
Of the five Felice Brothers standing onstage at the Troc, only two were actual blood brothers named Felice: waifish singer/guitarist Ian Felice, who looked like Dylan ’63 and sang like Dylan ’68; and bear-like keyboard/accordionist James Felice, who looked like a young Hank Williams Jr. in his beard and Zorro hat. The third blood Felice Brother, drummer Simone, has elected not to tour this time out, and was replaced by Jeremy Backofen, who, in tandem with snake-fingered bass player Christmas Clapton, gave the band’s two-hour set the requisite chugging heft. Fiddler/washboard-picker Greg Farley seemed vested with the responsibility of maintaining the band’s rowdy live rep as he failed around the stage like a gorilla on roller skates and intermittently bashed the drummer’s cymbals with his washboard. A large part of the charm of the Felice Brothers live show is you get the distinct impression they would be having this much fun even if nobody showed up. There is something about the way they all smile when they play, like they share some wonderful private joke you want in on — kinda like The Basement Tapes.
Much like the albums, Thursday night’s show alternated between barn-burning hoedowns in the Pogues-ian tradition of everyone-grab-an-instrument-and-make-a-joyous-noise (a stomping “Chicken Wire” and a howl-at-the-moon “Memphis Flu”) and sweetly downered folkadelic introspection (a Wilco-ian “The Big Surprise,” a stately “Cooperstown”). Especially noteworthy was a ripping spin through the subterranean homesick blues of “Penn Station” and a positively grand, otherly “The Greatest Show On Earth,” which is one of those unforgettable songs where you know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?