Sin and salvation were never far from the surface at the Felice Brothers Troubadour show. The Woodstock, N.Y., quintet’s wonderfully raucous, two-hour set included tales of murder, sex and alcoholic sloth, filled with women described as “the fairest of them all/hooked on Adderall/ kicks out the windows of your car,” men who admit “I lied/ I cheat/I step on people’s feet” and tender love songs that are little more than laundry lists of disaster, such as “The Big Surprise” when an apocalyptic event (they introduce it as about California falling into the sea) is compared to looking into a lover’s eyes for the first time.
While plenty of bands are waving the bloody Americana flag, the Felice Brothers never settle for simple despair. The music is too rollicking, headstrong and just plain joyous for that. Imagine if the spirit behind the Band was buried in the ground behind “Big Pink” was infected by toxic runoff and, some forty years later, rises from the muck a brawny, inebriated mutant.
Where Robbie Robertson and company were precise, the Felices are gloriously messy, bouncing around the stage, leaping onto the drum kit, switching instruments and places on stage, and a far cry from their lovely, weary and spare self-titled album (on Team Love Records). The sound is built around James Felice’s accordion (which connects the music to the Louisiana bayou) and Ian Felice’s warmly distorted guitar and driven by Simone Felice’s simple drums. They’re augmented by friends Farley (who adds bouncing, oom-pah basslines) and Christmas (wailing fiddle and rattling washboard). James tends to sing on the rockers with a voice that sounds like Springsteen after a three day whiskey and unfiltered cigarette bender while Ian sings the ballads in a voice that uncannily channels the early Dylan’s chilly shrug. It’s a perf that bumptious, careening and a little bit unpredictable, like a garrulous drunk who can suddenly instigate a bar fight.
But like that drunkard, the Felice Brothers wake up hungover and regretful, and end the evening with an encore of hymns and spirituals. Jumbled and still a little woozy, with Ian unsteadily pounding on a parade drum, you know that once they’ve been forgiven, the Felice Brothers are just going to go out an sin again.
The Felice Brothers (along with Deer Tick, a fine roots band that has called Providence, R.I., and Brooklyn home, unfortunately, had to cancel their Troubadour show) will play Gotham’s Spiegeltent Nov. 2.