Catskill sound comes to Adirondacks as Felice Brothers play Waterhole
SARANAC LAKE — The concept of Catskill music is a little ambiguous. If someone says New Orleans, you think of jazz and boisterous marching bands. If someone says Detroit, you think of Motown and R&B. As for places like Saugerties, Windham and Palenville, James Felice of the Felice Brothers thinks he has an answer.
“Woodstock is in the Catskills — the foothills of the Catskills — and so there a lot of folk guys that came up from the city in the ’60s and ’70s and sort of made a home here,” he said. “The Band and Bob Dylan and Hendrix all came up here and hung out. All their sounds sort of fused with the local scene, which is basically like a lot of other mountain town music: a lot of folk music, a lot of country music, a lot of just people strumming guitars on porches and whatever kind of music that happens to be.
“So for distinct Catskill music, I don’t know; maybe that’s something we’ve been trying to make for the last 10 years are so.”
The Felice Brothers will perform at the Waterhole Upstairs Music Lounge with special guests Folkfaces and the Old Main Friday, June 15 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $22 at the door.
The two mainstay members of the group are brothers James and Ian, while a few other members, including another brother Simone, have rotated through the band.
When the Felice Brothers first formed in the mid-2000s, James lived in his 1987 Ford Escort in a parking lot while Ian lived in a tent in the woods. Eventually, the two bought a short bus and made that their home.
“We were just living like careless youths,” James said. “It sounds crazy now, but at the time it all seemed to make sense.”
The three brothers recognized a talent for guitar playing and began performing in New York City subway terminals.
“We were basically all broke, semi-homeless, had nowhere to go, nothing to do and no prospects,” James said, “so we decided to start playing music.”
The band would also play at small-town events and local farmers markets. Later, Ian’s and Simone’s knack for songwriting got the group out of the subways and into the clubs.
Over the years, the Felice Brothers have offered up their personal take on folk music. Songs like “Love Me Tenderly” showcase a jazzy piano akin to an old-style saloon, while “Frankie’s Gun” has an accordion riff that makes you wonder why the accordion isn’t more of a mainstream instrument. Ian, the lead singer and main songwriter, kind of sings like Bob Dylan, but with better diction. His voice is raspy and slightly nasal, but you can actually understand what he’s saying in every song.
It’s hard to say how many albums the band has, seeing as how some are just Ian under the moniker the Felice Brothers, so James likes to say they have anywhere between nine and 12 studio records.
Though they’re sometimes labeled as an Americana band, James said he and Ian don’t really listen to Americana music.
“I know we pull a lot from Randy Newman,” he said. “I find him to be one of the great songwriters and great arrangers, so he’s definitely one we look at.”
James said he also got deeply into Fiona Apple a few years ago and draws from her.
“We still have, like, a very particular aesthetic, which is definitely rooted in the folk genre,” he said. “Like, we still have the same instruments, too. Ian literally has the same guitar, and it’s like the only guitar he’s ever had. So in that sense, we haven’t changed very much. I think we’ve just gotten better and became better musicians and better songwriters. I think the core idea of the music is similar to what it was when we started.”
TV shows such as the BBC’s “Outnumbered” and HBO’s vampire drama “True Blood” have featured Felice Brothers songs. James said those occasions always make him laugh a little.
“It is really fun,” he said. “It’s so unexpected and happens when you’re not really paying attention. I was watching ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ the other day, and we have a song playing in the background. I was like, ‘What is that song? I think I know it. Oh yeah, I wrote that song.’ I think it’s really cool, but I don’t really watch too much TV, so the odds of me running into one of our songs is pretty low.”
The Felice Brothers have shared the stage with the likes of Bright Eyes, Deer Tick and Dawes. They’ve also toured internationally and performed at plenty of festivals, so playing a smaller town such as Saranac Lake is a little bit of change for the band — but one they welcome, James said.
“I’m excited just to go there and just hang out,” he said. “I’m also definitely excited to play music. You know, New York is our home, and eventually I would love to be able to say we’ve played every town in New York.”
If you go …
Who: The Felice Brothers with special guests Folkfaces and the Old Main
When: 9 p.m. Friday, June 15
Where: The Waterhole Upstairs Music Lounge, 48 Main St., Saranac Lake
How much: $18 in advance, $22 at the door