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Band of brothers grew strong from busking roots

James Felice is reminiscing about the times he and his older brothers Simone and Ian spent busking in New York.

WELCOME RETURN: The Felice Brothers are back in Glasgow this week.
WELCOME RETURN: The Felice Brothers are back in Glasgow this week.

"It was scary at first," he says. "For a country boy to be in the big city was not what I was used to at all and just the sheer volume of people and the energy of the place, even though it was just a couple of hours' drive from home, was a lot to handle.

"But we wanted to get noticed and it worked. People would ask us to come and play at parties or coffee shop owners would say, Come and do a set for us. It was definitely a good way of finding out if what we had to offer musically had any appeal."

There was, Felice concedes, a romantic ideal for three boys who had grown up listening to folk and blues singers like Mississippi John Hurt to be walking the same streets in Greenwich Village and taking in the surroundings, even allowing for changes that occurred in the ensuing 40 years, that their heroes had encountered in the 1960s.

But a more tangible element of American music history also figures in the story of the Felice Brothers, who return to Glasgow this week to play in the city's month-long celebration of Americana, No Mean City.

Not far from where they grew up in the Catskill Mountains lies Woodstock, where the group the Felice Brothers are often likened to, the Band, made some of their defining music. It is also where the Felices would eventually receive, for many, the ultimate confirmation of their music's worth by being invited to appear on the Midnight Rambles, the Saturday night hootenannies held in the house-cum-studio of the late Levon Helm, the Band's drummer.

Simone Felice, who left the Felice Brothers in 2009 after he and his partner lost their first baby, played on the last Midnight Ramble before Helm died.

Like the Band, who recorded in the basement of the house they shared in Woodstock, the Felice Brothers made their early albums in makeshift studios including one they created in a chicken coop. That, however, was no romantic ideal. They just didn't have the money hire a proper studio.

"I'm sure my father, who's a carpenter, would have rather that we'd all followed him into what he'd see as a safer job," says Felice. "But music was the tie that bound the three of us together. Ian and Simone are just a few years older than I am and when they started playing guitars and drums, or whatever they were able to get their hands on, that was it for me. I didn't have any idea of what I was going to do with my life and we'd spend every spare minute playing together."

Eventually they began driving out to various spots on the road where they could set up and attract a crowd or they'd entertain people in their backyards until the possibility that they could earn enough money to keep them in food and clothing there, took them into the New York subways.

"We were never really in danger," says Felice. "We kind of stuck to the more middle-class areas, so it wasn't like we were looking over our shoulders the whole time in case someone ran off with the money that we'd collect in a bucket or a hat. But the busking experience definitely helped us to shape our music."

These days, with Simone concentrating on his own music and literature, Ian Felice is the group's main songwriter, with the other band members - Greg Farley (fiddle), Josh Rawson (bass) and David Estabrook (drums) - chipping in on arrangements.

"Ian's always worked really hard on his songwriting," says Felice. "I'm biased, I know, because he's my older brother, but he's a really intelligent guy and he reads a lot and he somehow finds a way of taking what he's been reading and channelling it into words and music that people can relate to."

On their previous visits to Glasgow, the Felice Brothers have been inspired by the responses they've had. They'd like to see more of Scotland, but so far their touring schedules haven't taken them beyond Glasgow or allowed time for travelling out of the city.

"I'd like to just spend more time seeing the country properly, rather than being in and away again," says Felice. "And certainly, if people in the rest of Scotland are as responsive as the Glasgow audience, then we really should try and get back and play more places. We like to feel that people leave our gigs happier than they were when they arrived. They don't have to be coming along to get drunk and party - they can just be meeting friends or on a date or something - but we try to impart joy when we get on the stage."

The Felice Brothers play 02 ABC, Glasgow, tomorrow

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