Vagabonds crash into Kent this weekend

Joe Shearer

Folk rockers The Felice Brothers to play Kent State Folk Festival

Felice Brothers

Credit: DKS Editors

Martin Sexton | Photo courtesy of Martin Sexton

Credit: DKS Editors

Nanci Griffith | Photo courtesy of Nanci Griffith

Credit: DKS Editors

For brothers Ian, Simone and James Felice, it began as what James described as a “romantic thing.” Growing up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, the mere thought of early 20th century American musicians traveling on foot from town to town was an important image driving The Felice Brothers (also including friends Christmas and Farley) to play in the streets of New York City, and ultimately, get to where they are today.

Although using modern transportation to travel to their hometown last Saturday to play a benefit show may not lend itself to the same effect of drifters such as “Blind” Willie Johnson, whom they grew up admiring, perhaps it’s more about the spirit.

“To think about these early American songwriters traveling around with no homes and no money, with dust on their shoes – definitely, it’s inspiring to even think about those things,” said James, who sings backup and plays accordion, piano and organ. “To think about guys walking through the desert with their record in their backpack and a guitar – it’s a lovely thought, I suppose. The reality is different, but not so much.

The three brothers and two friends are bringing that reality to the 42nd Kent State Folk Festival this Saturday.

While Felice Brothers incorporates moderate amounts of fiddle, keys and banjo, therein lies a certain irresistible, drunken, sing-along rowdiness those familiar with the band had come to expect. James described one scenario where one night a girl ran onto the stage and grabbed the microphone on the last song.

“(She) started screaming – I guess she was trying to sing – but she was really sort of screaming in the mic,” James said. “Transfixed in horror, we just kept playing. The whole audience was just blown away.”

The band’s influences range from Jimmie Rodgers to Ray Charles to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Right along with some of those more predictable and conventional sounds comes an influence you’d have to dig for a little – hip-hop. James rattled off artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah and Notorious B.I.G., and you begin to realize this isn’t your typical, modern folk act.

“We even listen to 50 Cent,” he said matter-of-factly. “Anything that’s good, we’ll listen to. We’re not genre bigots.”

That unpretentiousness relates exactly to what James said is the band’s mission. More than anything, James said he and the other guys just want to entertain. At the same time, he’s not so na’ve to believe this is the music’s only function. Music is never so simple.

“It’s hard to know a lot of times,” he said, somewhat backing off his original claim. “It’s hard to know whether you’re playing music that people can relate to, to try to play music that just makes people feel good so they don’t have to think about anything that’s going on in their lives. We just like to play and have people respond.

“Our father’s a carpenter. That’s how he gets through his days, by listening to the music he loves.”

Ah, carpenters, vagabonds, mountains… What a treat to know a slice of Americana is still alive and well in the digital age.

Contact all reporter Joe Shearer at [email protected].