Taking a break from working on an almost-finished album and from playing an unlikely string of stadium shows, as support for the Killers and Mumford & Sons, The Felice Brothers flew across the Atlantic for a one-off show in London. Due to a postponement way back last autumn, the night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire has been long in coming; taking place over a year after tickets first went on sale. There are no hard feelings though. The Brothers inspire a deep loyalty and devotion from their fans, who see the band as underdogs – touring and recording relentlessly and making little to no money, while lesser bands make millions and marry Hollywood stars.
The aforementioned dates with faux-folkies Mumford & Sons highlights this perfectly. Perhaps the antithesis of the posh English pop stars, The Felice Brothers ooze authenticity, natural talent and a gritty, no-bullshit approach to the life of a rock’n’roll band. Despite their clear roots in the lineage of American folk and blues music – and their recent flirtations with electronic experimentation – The Felice Brothers are surely one of the most punk rock bands playing in America today. Indeed, I’ve been to several shows at Empire, and this was the first time I’d seen the headline act working the merch stall themselves, straight after their set.
Despite presumed jetlags, the band are in confident form, opening the set with a brand new song, before jumping straight into the James-sung, live favourite Whiskey In My Whiskey. From there on out, the set is a mixture of new songs (all fantastic) and material pulled from their many albums, EPs and mixtapes. The Brothers are clearly tight, yet retain their trademark energy and spontaneity live, so the music never feels slick, and the band do not stick to a preconceived set list.
For all the band’s infectious energy and back catalogue of classics, the highlight of the set comes when the rest of the band vacate the stage, leaving singer Ian standing alone in the spotlight. Strumming his steel fingerpicks across the strings of his battered old Guild guitar, he gives a breathtaking performance of what might be one of the best songs written in recent years. The Mating Of The Doves, buried at the end of the Brothers’ online-released God Bless You Amigo, is a song – written from the perspective of a disillusioned God – that could come off as hokey or overreaching in the hands of someone else. Yet Ian’s distinct voice, gravelly yet powerful, sincere yet not over-earnest, gives the song a power and emotional intensity that brings the thousand-seat theatre to rapt silence. It also highlights Ian’s growing confidence as a frontman, evidenced in the direction of his gaze. While previously cast down at the floor beneath his battered hiking boots; his eyes tonight stare confidently out into the upper echelons of the hall.
Following a final, elongated Penn Station, the audience – from grey-haired folkies to young, indie rock fans – streams out of the Empire’s exits grinning and looking forward to the release of the just-previewed new album.