Felice Brothers Article


Gazette Contributing Writer

This was in yesterday's Daily Hampshire Gazette.

The Felice Brothers recall the folk era of the '60s, with their floppy hats, worn leather shoes and button-down collar shirts.

And it isn't just their appearance.

Lead vocalist Ian Felice sounds eerily similar to a legend of '60s music whose birth name is Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan. In fact, some people have said The Felice Brothers borrow too heavily, in terms of both their songs and their looks, from icons of the American folk music scene like Dylan and The Band. But James Felice, the band's accordionist, says he doesn't mind being compared to the greats.

Interviewed last week by phone from the group's New Paltz, N.Y., studio, he said, "It's an amazing thing to be compared to them [Bob Dylan and The Band] in a good way or in a bad way. I know people ... [might think] we're like ripping them off or whatever, which is fine, they can think whatever they want. It's very flattering. I don't really hear it too much, but it's good to hear it."

A Northampton crowd will be able to see firsthand how the band stacks up next to the '60s when they take the stage at Pearl Street for a Saturday performance.

Certainly, geography may have had something to do with the brothers' gravitation to folk music.

The trio grew up 20 minutes from Woodstock, N.Y., the onetime home of Dylan, in the small town of Palenville, where drummer Simone, 31, singer Ian, 26, and James, 21, formed the band in 2006. Later on, their friends Christmas Clapton, 21, a bassist, and Greg Farley, a fiddle and washboard player, joined the band.

The group first gained exposure when they moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where they busked on the city's streets and subways. For James Felice, who had played piano for 10 years, their street gigs required him to take up the more portable accordion.

"I'm probably a better piano player so I like to play that more, but the accordion is just fun. It's a fun challenge; I'll play anything," Felice said.

After touring constantly and getting the chance to open shows for bigger artists, including Deer Tick and Old Crow Medicine Show, the band began to gain a following. After playing on the road with Conor Oberst's band Bright Eyes, Oberst - who has also received comparisons to Dylan - signed the group to his label, Team Love. The group's first nationally distributed album, the self-titled "The Felice Brothers," was released last March and their newest record came out earlier this month.

"It's called 'Yonder Is The Clock'. It's really good, we really like it, Felice said. "It's more cohesive [than our previous releases] and it's much better."

Named after a line in Mark Twain's novella "The Mysterious Stranger," the album is filled with tales of love, death, deceit, train stations and even baseball. Compared to earlier releases, the album has a more sophisticated and orchestrated sound.

A bit surprisingly, at the top of the list of American musicians Felice counts as influences, a list with names like Skip James, Randy Newman and Neil Young, is the late rap artist Notorious B.I.G.

"Notorious B.I.G. was one of the greatest American poets who ever lived, and just his flow and the things that he sang about or rapped on or whatever are unbelievable. I'm a country dude so I guess I can't really relate too much, but I can feel it," said Felice. "That's the most important thing about all these people, they're just honest and true."


Interview with Sarah Vowell on 2/4/08

Sarah Vowell is one of the most unique voices today, both in print and radio. She has been a contributing editor to National Public Radio's "This American Life" with Ira Glass since 1996 and a frequent social commentator and guest on late night shows like "Conan O'Brien" and "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show." At the Daily Hampshire Gazette, I had the opportunity to interview her by phone on February 4.
I am going to post the entire chat transcript here, which is almost 4,000 words. I'll put most of it behind a cut for all interested. For the print edition, it will be 1,500 words or less... my editor had said 600 but I am having trouble getting it down to less than that. It was a fun interview, so I think it deserves it's time somewhere, even if it is just my blog.

Q: Has history always been your passion?
A: No, I kind of, I don’t know if, ‘looked into it’ is the phrase. I mean, I’ve done a lot of different types of writing; I started out as a critic. I wrote about art and music and books. Then about 13 years ago I started working on the radio program ‘This American Life’ and then I started doing more narrative stories. Then I made this one-hour long documentary about the Cherokee Trail of Tears just because my ancestors were on it, and that was that story that was about ten years ago, and that’s when sort of everything changed. I kind of “found my calling” sounds sort of stuck up but I definitely didn’t want to do much of anything else after that.

I still dabble in other subjects from time to time but really that story kind of changed my life because I liked researching it. It wasn’t a straight historical documentary; it was the story of my sister and me driving the route of the trail of tears; so it would go back and fourth between telling the historical story and then talking about our road trip. It was also a really good way to just talk about the United States in general because one of my favorite things anyone’s ever said about America, was the writer Steve Erickson said that the two things America is good at are annihilation and fun. I think that that trip definitely lurched back and fourth between telling this historical tragedy, this tale of genocide and injustice and woe. Then because my sister and I were on a road trip, there would just suddenly be road trip things happening like a barbeque and then listening to pop songs on the radio. So it’s not that I always write about history itself, there’s a lot of writing about historical tourism.

Like two books ago I wrote a book called Assassination Vacation, that’s about the first three presidential assassinations but I tell the story of those political murders through traveling to historical sites having to do with the murders. So there’s a lot of local flavor, and travel stuff and me hanging out with my friends or family. It’s a way of talking about the subject but not always talking about it. And there’s something that’s so continually fascinating to me about historic sites; that is except for school children who are forced to go to them, the only other people who generally visit historic sites are on vacation. Historic sites, especially American history, are so often grim, like battlefields or…

Q: Cemeteries?

A: Yeah, so things are generally fairly morbid or horrifying and people visit those places in their leisure time. I’m interested in history and writing about it and I generally do get to the heart of whatever I’m talking about, but I also like thinking about the way people consume history, or don’t. Like writing about sites having to do with President Garfield; he’s forgotten basically, you can tell that by how sites having to do with him are either not commemorated or are completely lonesome places where no one goes.

Q: Yeah I think I read that there is no plaque where his assassination happened?

A: Yes, which was at the site of the National Gallery of Art, it’s all on federal property, and they could tack something up. In my family, I always feel like history always begins with home, my family, especially my father and my grandfather, it was definitely a topic of kitchen table discussions and just because my family has been part of a few historical events in terms of the history of the country, they always talked about it in a really sort of reminiscing way. So it was nothing out of reach or far away, or something that happened to other people, like American history, in my family we’ve always talked about it as something that happened to people like us, something that happened to the people we descend from. I think that actually does carry through in the way I write about and talk about history because I always try and make it more immediate or colloquial or narrative and get to the juicy bits. Find some kind of…

Q: You try to make it more relatable?

A: Yeah, or find some kind of personal connection or relevance. One reason I’m privy to do that is that I’m not a real historian, I’m a writer, so for me, my responsibility is towards what I’m writing and how I’m writing it. I never feel like I need to tell the whole story about any given thing, I just focus on the juicy bits of something, I don’t feel the need to cover the waterfront really. I’m able to, because I think of myself as a writer and not a historian, I focus on just the things that get me excited or outraged or things I have some sort of an emotional reaction to and I feel like then I feel like I can pass that onto the reader or the listener.

Q: So when you were a kid what did you want to do?

A: Oh, well, when I was a little kid I wanted to be a country singer. Then when I was a teenager up until when I was about 20 I always wanted to be some kind of musician I guess. I studied to be a composer actually, like to be an orchestra composer, and I only really quit that when I was about 20 when I finally faced the fact that I really didn’t have any talent. I really didn’t have any talent; I mean I had some, but not enough y’know? Actually, I was really fortunate to receive an education in this public school that had an amazing music program.

So I was in my second year of college before I realized that I really didn’t have it in me to be good. So I always wanted to do that. Then I started art history in college and graduate school. So that’s how I became a writer was just writing term papers and essay exams. It’s why I exclusively write non-fiction y’know, so, yeah, I came to it from art history and then started writing for my college paper. Not a good story, but it’s a true story.

Q: No, I mean, that’s happened to me too. I used to go to art school and I realized I wasn’t good at it.

A: It’s a pretty crushing thing to deal with when you’re 20. In a way I had already had this career flame out, (laughs) when I was 20. I had tried so hard for so many years at something that I didn’t have much of a natural knack for, but I was a real hard worker. So writing just comes naturally to me and it really does make me appreciate the job I have now, that I really have an inclination for it, after I spent pretty much the first half of my life devoted to trying really hard at something that I didn’t have that thing for, y’know? There’s something about music especially, it requires so much discipline, long hours and hard work. Even though I don’t play music anymore, it really made me who I am. I do think that I write sort of rhythmically sometimes; everything I write, I read it aloud. Partly because I feel like that’s good editing practice just because when I read something out loud I know where the boring bits are because I can’t wait to get through them. But also I think I read everything I write out loud just to make sure that is sounds right, y’know? Sometimes I’ll even write rhythmically like; this sentence needs one syllable at the end, not two. It just doesn’t sound musical to me.

Q: So when you were growing up could you have seen yourself becoming such a public personality?

A: Um, well, when you’re a musician, I mean, I was in hundreds of performances when I was a kid. It is one of the more public hobbies for a child to have. No, not really, not in the way that I have become. When I was expecting to become a musician then I did expect a life where I was going to be performing in front of audience. Basically, since I was six I’ve been standing up in front of people making them listen to me.

Q: So out of all the books you’ve written, which was the most fun to write?

A: Fun? Well, it’s hard to think of them that way; they’re all such struggles generally. You would think that the book about the murders [Assassination Vacation] would be the most horrifying but that one was sort of like one jaunt out of another; it was pretty emotional a lot of times. Especially when thinking about the president’s families and what they went through and the grieving. It was one road trip after another. The Puritans one [The Wordy Shipmates] was definitely the hardest book. Just trying to sift through a lot of Calvinist theology to find the fun parts was hard. But on the other hand I feel like I’m probably proudest of that book because it was the most difficult. I feel like it’s probably one of the breezier books about the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony and I’m enormously proud of that because I know how hard it was to pull that off.

Q: Speaking of the book, do you want to tell me a little bit about it?

A: I could say that it’s about the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and it is, but it’s really about a handful of people. Really three or four, who I find are the most interesting characters in the founding of New England; those being John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts, who wrote the beautiful sermon where we get the image of New England as a city on a hill. Then Roger Williams, who went on to found Rhode Island after he got kicked out of Massachusetts. Those two guys are my main characters and their stories are very intertwined in that Winthrop was the magistrate who kicked Williams out of Massachusetts for being a rabble-rouser but they were also friends. Winthrop is the one who warmed Williams: “ The marshal is coming for you to ship you back to England. If you want to stay in America you better hide.” So that part of the story was so interesting to me, and then they maintained correspondence almost up until when Winthrop dies. So there’s this story of friendship and argument at the heart of it. So I really focused on those two men and their writing. In Winthrop’s journal he kept these really interesting journals where we got most of our history of early New England. Williams is more of an uneven writer but definitely a prolific one. He had all these crazy ideas for the time about freedom of consciousness, which is to say freedom of religion, not a popular idea in Massachusetts. He also wrote this beautiful book, this little glossary of English and Algonquin, because when he got kicked out of Massachusetts the Narragansett Indians took him in. So he wrote this little dictionary of the Algonquin language, which wasthe language the Narragansett speak. Even though it’s basically just a dictionary all the lexicon he teaches and all the vocabulary he translates, so much of it is about hospitality. So it’s almost like a memoir of his banishment and being taken in by these Indians who really kind of saved his life: so much of what he writes in this little book is about being offered food, and hospitality, and shelter and aid. I really call the book “The Wordy Shipmates” because the two things that are the most interesting to me about the seventeenth century New Englanders were their ideas and ideals about community and also their love of words and language and scholarship. The fact that the settlers of the Boston area were just building their own little flap dash cabins and they started building Harvard because they are just so obsessed with higher learning and academic achievement and reading and scholarship. They would not put up with any clergymen who didn’t know Hebrew and Greek and Latin. So they needed these things to be taught as much as they needed hay and corn. They were problematic people, there’s no need to respect everything about them; they were a little nit picky on some subjects, especially religion. Their love of words and the amount of writing they churned out is amazing. Those two things about them are the things that I kept coming back to.

Q: So in your research you’ve obviously done a lot of traveling to historical sites, do you have a favorite?
A: Um, there are a few. Definitely I love the Lincoln Memorial probably more than any other place with the historic event and just because I love those two speeches of Lincoln’s chiseled on the wall: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. Let’s see, where else do I like? Growing up in Montana I’ve been to the Little Big Horn Battle Field probably more than any other historic site except for the Lincoln Memorial. That’s probably my favorite battlefield, it’s a very beautiful area. It’s more interesting to me than Gettysburg to me because at Little Big Horn they buried the fallen soldiers where they died. SO the path is kind of meandering and sort of tells a story. You follow the path up to a certain point and then it stops and you think you’re done but then you look across the little revine and there’s this one little tombstone where they guy probably thought ‘I’m getting away, I’m gonna make it!” and then they got him. That place is pretty fascinating to me. In Massachusetts or in New England I like… I mean, I think Plymouth is amusing. I went to the Mohegan Sun because of the Mohengans and Uncus and their part in the Pequot war and all of the Mohegan sites are right around the Mohegan sun.

Q: So I’ve seen some interviews with you from right before the presidential election and you seemed kind of down about things with the country. So I was wondering how you’re feeling about it now.

A: Well, I mean, there’s a lot to worry about. Now I’m worried about circumstances rather than say, executive leadership. I have a lot of confidence in the new president. Yesterday was remarkable, his nominees had to pull out because of not paying their taxes which was y’know, idiotic. But he immediately called the nation’s most important TV journalists to say literally “I screwed up.” That was enormously confidence inspiring: even more than his smart decisions. That was to me, I have so much respect for that because, A. It means he has enough confidence in what he’s doing that he can make a very big deal about how he messed up. I think that was just so honest for one thing, especially after eight years of a guy who when asked to name one of his mistakes couldn’t think of any y’know? More than any flowery thing Barack Obama has ever said, the words “I screwed up” inspire me with more confidence than any of his poetic musings because it means he’s holding himself accountable and he doesn’t lie when things go wrong he’s maybe not gonna spit shine his failings. That’s gonna be, for one thing, such a time saver and it was just like so honest. I mean of course he’s got a lot to deal with. I’m still as nervous but now it seems like I don’t have to worry about leadership and various situations; the two wars, the economic crisis. Now I can just be worried about the two wars and the economic crisis. Which I feel is enough to worry about. I mean if you’re budgeting your worries this seems like a generous amount of things to worry about. I’m nervous but I do have faith in the new president and the people he’s picking. Even though, y’know, he’s not picking the right person every single time, he’s at least trying.

Q: So, I’ve heard you’re a big movie and TV buff. What’s the last great movie you’ve seen or current shows on TV you like?

A: Well, let’s see, I love that Richard Jenkins got an Academy Award for “The Visitor.” I think he’s the tops. What have I seen lately that I really like? I’m one of those “Lost” people, y’know? (laughing)

Q: Uh-huh. (laughing)

But also, I like Gossip Girl. I like really kind of escapist stuff. But then on the other hand, PBS has been doing this series on the history of India, I think it might be called “The History of India”, no the “The Story of India.” I realized I really know so little about India and that’s been kind of fascinating. So I guess, “The Story of India” and “Gossip Girl.” I like to go back and fourth. I like documentaries and I like complete pufferies. I loathe reality shows. If there are real people I want them to talk about how they almost died on Mt. Everest or I want some completely hokey, fake, made-up soap opera. I don’t want real people being stupid. I want the History Channel or silliness, fake silliness. I have a low threshold for real silliness.

Q: All right. So what about music? What have you been listening to?

A: I’ve been going back to my teen roots. I’ve just been listening to Bach a lot, um, pretty exciting! Oh I do like Beirut. I definitely have a sort of affinity with him or them; it’s just one guy I think. His music has this patina. It almost sounds like the wedding music from The Godfather. It has this very old world quality but there’s something new about it too. So I definitely respond to that.

Q: Are you working on any new projects yet?
A: Yeah I’m researching a book on the history of Hawaii. It’s kind of almost a sequel to the Puritans book because the people of Massachusetts, they got around. The churchly people of Massachusetts were able to destroy more than their own yard. Massachusetts actually does play a huge part in that history because you have the Massachusetts missionaries duking it out with the Massachusetts whalers. There’s kind of this whole Saturday night, Sunday morning thing going on on the other side of the world. And it’s all people basically from a 30-mile radius near Boston.

Q: I know that you’re a twin. So what’s your relationship like with her? Are you similar?
A: She has blonde hair and blue eyes and I’m dark. We do have similar voices and she lives out in the country, in Montana, and welds things. So she has a completely different life than me but we’re really close. She and her son, my nephew, have been great traveling companions. Both just for fun and also my job, which is great to spend time with them, but also I don’t drive.

Q: What’s your sister’s name?
A: Amy.

Q: Yeah, I heard that you have a phobia of driving. Does that ever bother you? Do you ever wish you could just travel by yourself ever?
A: Um yeah. Well I do travel by myself a lot actually, but not in a car. I mean, sure it would make my life a lot easier. I tried to learn once but it’s really hard as an adult because you can’t really practice; plus I live in New York City. So I have to say it really only comes up like five days a year is it a problem. If I lived somewhere else, in New York City it isn’t really an issue.

Q: If you were still in Montana it’d be an issue.
A: I mean even in Montana, the town I grew up in was very small you could just walk or bike everywhere. If I had grown up in the real Montana then I probably would have had to suck it up. But I didn’t.

Q: Do you have a couple more minutes or?
A: I have like three more minutes. No pressure.
Q: So I was wondering what the tour of This American Life was like as compared being in the studio doing it.
A: Oh, well, y’know, more hangovers I guess. It actually is almost just a concentrated version of what working on it over the years has been like which is like being part of this little gang. So taking it on the road is sort of that but with other people watchin’ I guess? I don’t know, it’s always, most of the show isn’t me, so I can just sit there and watch it like pretty much everyone in the audience. I guess probably my favorite of the tours was I was doing a piece about “The Battle Hymn of The Republic” and I was doing it with Jon Langford from the Mekons, who is sort of like my musical illustrator and that was really fun to have a back up band. I don’t really get to have that generally in my readings, to perform with my own band behind me, backing me up. So that was definitely a highlight.

Q: Should I let you go? I feel like I should. You gotta get going?
A: Um, do you have just one more question?
Q: Well, it’s kind of like a follow up to that. I know you had Dan Savage and The Mates of State on the road with you, so what was it like working with them?
A: Well I mean we don’t really work together; we all do our own individual things. It’s fun being part of it, and I think Dan Savage is one of the smartest people in the country. He’s definitely one of the smartest political commentators. He’s just so quick and so funny. It’s just; it’s kind of inspirational. He would get egg if I said I found him inspirational because he’s really one of the least touchy feely people I’ve ever met. But it is generally inspiring to see someone like that shine in front of people. I guess everyone’s shininess rubs off on everyone else. It makes me want to be better. Not like competition or anything, it just makes me wanna raise the bar. It’s not like I wanna be better, I just don’t want to be the worst one.

Q: Yeah, you strive to be more like him or do better.
A: Even when I do these readings it’s almost like a smaller scale version of that. But it’s incredibly low tech, I mean I guess the bands have equipment. Ira has what I call his “radio fort” where he produces things on stage. I’m always amazed at how this low tech thing, one person and a microphone, can theoretically be as satisfying or entertaining as some stadium rock tour. To me, Dan Savage, at a microphone with nothing more than maybe a pink tutu as a prop can be as entertaining as any large scale over blown spectacle on the road. There’s something to be said for one person with something to say.


Vegan recipes

All I can think about lately is making delicious vegan food. I recently found out that I have high cholesterol, even though I have been vegetarian for five years and am only 23. So rather than go on some medication which I might have to stay on for life, I am at least trying to see if a vegan or very close to vegan diet will change this.

So far I have been trying a few new recipes and in general just using a lot of earth balance spread and soymilk. I've made tofu scramble which has been amazing and I have a million vegan recipes bookmarked from livejournal and blogger.

I've snuck a tiny bit of cheese here and there, but i really don't miss it that much. I am looking at it as an excuse to lose weight and be healthier. This might stick! In turn though I am spending a lot more time looking at recipes online and cooking... but I've been lacking in the social department lately so at least I'm filling up the time and being healthy.

This is sort of a random personal post. I think I might just start a separate more life pondering blog for this kind of thing but for now you can enjoy it.


Gazette - A World Of Piano

Piano series features trio of jazz notables

Pianist Connie Crothers will be among three performers featured in this month's "A World Of Piano" series at Northampton Center for the Arts.
Photo: Piano series features trio of jazz notables
courtesy ken weiss
Pianist Connie Crothers will be among three performers featured in this month's "A World of Piano" series at the Northampton Center of the Arts.

The trio of pianists who will play in the Northampton Center for the Arts' eighth annual piano series this month aren't household names, but they're definitely on the map in the jazz world.

"America is littered with creative musicians that the average person has never heard of," said Glenn Siegel, the producer of the show and jazz coordinator at University of Massachusetts' Fine Arts Center.

The center's solo pianist series, "A World of Piano," which takes place on the first three Fridays in February, will feature Curtis Clark, Connie Crothers and Joe Bonner. The series kicks off Friday with Clark, who cites as influences Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. He studied piano in Los Angeles and later moved to New York City.

He also lived for many years in Amsterdam, where he played with renowned South African and Dutch musicians. His fellow performers have included musicians like Oscar Brown Jr., Julian Priester, Art Taylor, David Murray, Billy Bang and Richard Davis.

Crothers, who is playing on Feb.13, studied under the innovative pianist and composer Lennie Tristano. Crothers teamed up with famed percussionist Max Roach in 1980 and worked with him for over 20 years. She is the first woman to perform in "A World of Piano" in five years.

Bonner, who is known for doing hard bop and modal jazz, will wrap up the series on Feb. 20.

Bonner leads The Bonner Party, a foursome jazz ensemble with bebop, gospel and blues influences. Bonner has performed with jazz greats like saxophonist Billy Harper as well as the Roy Haynes ensemble. Siegel says that Bonner is the most well-known of the three featured performers.

Before his concert, Bonner will present a free lecture at the center from 3 to 4 p.m. He will share stories, demonstrate from the piano and take questions.

"These are all artists that unless you listen to a lot of jazz music, you might not have heard of," said Penny Burke, executive director of the center. "They are not necessarily commercially successful artists, but they are worthy of being heard."

An art exhibit, "All That Jazz," will run concurrently with the series in the East and West galleries of the center from Friday through March 5. All of the local artists featured in this exhibit teach at the center.

Artist Brooke Schnabel will showcase a series of her paintings that she says "follow a pattern like notes in the scales." Nava Grunfeld will present watercolors and Karen Dolmanisth, an installation piece. Other artists in the show include Paula Gottlieb, Dean Nimmer, Cassandra Holden, Jane Lund, Robert Masla, Robert Markey and Deborah Rubin.

The opening reception takes place Feb. 13, 5 to 7 p.m., followed by Crother's performance. The galleries are open Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and during public events.

The center is located at 17 New South St.; all shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 each; $40 for all three shows, $12 each for students and seniors. Tickets are available at AJ Hastings in Amherst and, in Northampton, at the center and State Street Fruit Store. For information, call 584-7327 or visit www.nohoarts.org.

From Gazettenet.com

One of my first clips from my new internship at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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