The Felice Brothers are a sound man's worst nightmare, and they don't even perform with banjos. At the Old Rock House on Monday night, the upstate New Yorkers pushed the limits of cacophony through the 50-foot-high ceiling and somehow still made music - raging, touching, bouncing, blaring - that speaks to their (and our) deepest indigenous spirit and aspirations: Screw your rules (and tuning). There's history to be remade.
If Ian and James Felice, along with fiddler and washboarder Greg Farley, bassist Christmas and drummer Dave Turbevile, obliterated the rules of old-time blues, country and rock & roll, opener Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three played by them, and still sounded inspired. This was a homecoming set for the band just back from a European tour; the weeks of playing together showed. The band is crisp and light on its feet, moving between jazz jaunts and jug band romps, with LaFarge directing the solos and singing his barbaric blues yawp out. The set ended with a whimsical cutting contest between guitarist Adam Hoskins and harmonica player Ryan Koenig, and a slap-happy doghouse bass solo from Joey Glynn. The crowd clapped along at every chance and seemed thrilled to have the South-siders back on native soil.
Ian and James Felice took the stage unceremoniously, the latter the size of an industrial-strength refrigerator, the former looking as if a breeze might break him in two. Over just electric piano and guitar, Ian sang a stormy weather song, "Little Ann," a grand sound check, even if the St. Louis night air was soft and clement. And then the band was off, cutting loose feedback and funereal marching through bluesy grime, full of spit and fire and life, Ian's chipped, cherry red Guild clanging, the bass honking and the violin shooting off Devil-down-in-Georgia sparks and rosin. And then the whole giddy din stopped on a dime.
That's the way the night went, careening between bellow-alongs such as "Let Me Come Home" and a scampering "Run Chicken Run" (a poultry murder ballad punctuated by Farley with a bow drawn across his neck), a wild and deafening "Greatest Show on Earth" (with history filtered through Pyncheonesque word play and Turbeville not so much drumming as bouncing off his stool to slam the suffering into his kit) ramming into a gorgeous new song about a "girl in a black velvet band." The band seemed eager to try out fresh material, fending off insipid requests for "Frankie's Gun!" (as if they would climb back into the Winnebago without playing it). Many of the new songs stuck, though Ian's semi-hip hop set piece about "the Royal Hawaiian Hotel" was simply bizarre and a new ballad by Farley sounded strained and clichéd (and painfully sung). Christmas' vocal turn on a new (at least to this reviewer) song about a journey from the Hollywood Hills to Graceland felt much more Felician.
The 120 or so fans crowded onto the floor and gladly (and quietly) took in some of the gentlest songs, especially a ballad with the haunting closing line "Far away places with the strange sounding names calling me" and "Saint Stephen's End," which opened the encore with just finger-picked electric guitar and bass, before the rabid build of "Her Eyes Dart 'Round," sung in a full bronchial-infected howl. Then it all ended with the inevitable, welcome and always pandemoniac "Frankie's Gun!," the right closer to a chaotic but joyous night.