The Hunger Mt. Boys and The Felice Brothers at Club Helsinki

Both bands playing at Club Helsinki last Saturday are fantastic and have local roots, a combination that made for a truly wonderful night. There’s something really special about a hometown show (I use the term “hometown” loosely, referring not to an official hometown but to any show in the surrounding area). A band might tour extensively and have fans all over the world, but at a hometown show the energy is different. The crowd has a unique kind of love for the musicians, regardless of whether or not they know them personally, because the musicians represents that area. There’s pride in the fact that the band is making music and gaining recognition, and a local show has a sense of comaraderie between the band and audience that isn’t present at other shows. The opening band on Saturday, The Hunger Mountain Boys, is based out of the Berkshires, where the band used to play regularly at old Club Helsinki before the venue moved to Hudson. The main act, The Felice Brothers, are Hudson Valley natives and have a major Upstate New York following.

The majority of the crowd was there to see the headliners, but there were definitely some loyal Hunger Mountain Boys fans there who gave a great big cheer when guitarist Kip Beacco introduced the band after the second song. Even for those who weren’t there specifically to see The Hunger Mountain Boys, the band’s hearty bluegrassy goodness fired up the crowd. Originally a duo of Kip Beacco and Teddy Weber, The Hunger Mountain Boys later added Matt Downing on upright bass and they continued to tour, record, and gain popularity in the bluegrass world both among general listeners and critics alike. Then, when Kip’s wife had a baby he took some time off and Adam Tanner (who has played with The Crooked Jades and The Twilight Broadcasters) stepped in for a while before Kip returned. The trio eventually disbanded, much to the dismay of many bluegrass fans both in the United States and the UK, where the band had a big following. This time around it was Kip and Matt, joined by Aaron Jonah Lewis  (who used to play with the band Special Ed and the Shortbus, which later became The Hot Seats) on fiddle and banjo. Throughout the band’s set the musicians performed around one mic, playing a lot of old Hunger Mountain Boy originals along with a cover of Bob Wills’ “That Gal Is Killin Me” and a song written by Aaron Jonah Lewis called “Take Me Back To Tennessee.” The musicians also sang the old traditional “Camp A Little While In The Wilderness” a capella, during which Lewis held his banjo up flat below their mouths, creating a natural reverb that complemented their beautiful three-part harmonies. Some of my fondest memories of live bluegrass music are of The Hunger Mountain Boys, so it was really great to see them again — and sounding almost as good as they left off (hey, Aaron Jonah Lewis is great but there’s no replacing Teddy Weber. Interestingly, Weber is now a member of The Wiyos, a band that actually has two random connections to The Felice Brothers: first, The Wiyos opened for Bob Dylan when he toured with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp a few years ago, and The Felice Brothers have drawn inumerable comparisons to Dylan and The Band. Second, both The Wiyos and The Felice Brothers played at a Levon Helm Midnight Ramble. There is also a random connection between The Hunger Mountain Boys and The Felice Brothers in that the latter’s current drummer, Dave, used to work at The Rosendale Cafe. The Hunger Mountain Boys frequently played at the venue, so Dave recognized Matt and Kip as soon as he saw them). In any case, The Hunger Mountain Boys is a terrific band, and the current trio is going to be recording some songs, which I can’t wait to hear.

Although The Felice Brothers’ style is quite different from that of The Hunger Mountain Boys, the former did start out heavily influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Leadbelly, and The Carter Family. At the earliest Felice Brother shows I can remember, back when they played restaurants and bars where no one paid much attention to the four scrawny fellas enthusiastically belting out songs, their sets often included covers of old folk and blues songs. In fact, at the first show I ever attended the band closed the night with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Although The Felice Brothers’ sound has changed and evolved greatly over the years, it still largely retains those traditional roots. The band has even been re-introducing some of its earlier, folksier songs back into its repertoire — like the heartfelt “Got What I Need” sung by James, or the quiet ballad “Her Eyes Dart Round” — and have added songs like “Cumberland Gap” (an old folk song made popular by Woody Guthrie, who recorded it during his Folkways sessions in the 40s) and “Tennessee Border” by Hank Williams. In fact, after an epic series of misfortunate events which you can read about here, The Felice Brothers were inspired to record an album (which both “Her Eyes Dart Round” and Cumberland Gap” are on) comprised of eight traditional folk songs and twelve originals in the same vein, available exclusively online. Of course, The Felice Brothers also know how to rock a house, which they did at Helsinki. There was a long break between bands, and before The Felice Brothers went on the anticipation in the room was intense. When the band finally came out, the audience’s energy was unleashed in full as the musicians opened with “Fire At The Pageant” off their latest “physical” album, Celebration, Florida. From there the band launched into the multi-dimensional and mature (both in regards to the complexity of the music as well as the content of the song) “Honda Civic,” also on Celebration, Florida , before switching things up and playing some folksier material, including “Cumberland Gap,” “Tennessee Border,” and the Felice Brothers’ original, “Take This Bread.” The audience started singing along during that last one, and Simone Felice joined his brothers and former bandmates on stage with a washboard in hand. (Simone left The Felice Brothers to form a band called The Duke & The King, and has played with Mumford & Sons. He also frequently performs solo, and will be playing an intimate show at Club Helsinki on Dec. 7th with a few friends, including Simi Stone, his former bandmate from The Duke & The King). Simone stayed on stage to sing “Show Me Mercy,” then later came back out to play washboard during the fan favorite “Whisky In My Whisky.”

In the middle of the band’s set Ian noticed a couple standing on the side of the stage. The woman was wearing a wedding gown and Ian said to her, ‘That’s a pretty dress.” It was soon learned that the couple had just gotten married that day and had their reception upstairs in the ballroom at Club Helsinki. The band invited them onstage, asked their names, and introduced them to the crowd. After wishing them a long life of happiness and giving them hugs, The Felice Brothers dedicated “Her Eyes Dart Round” to the newlyweds, who walked off stage and slow-danced on the side. After that the band picked things up again and continued to play an energetic set, jumping and stomping on stage. At the end of their show the audience did the same, yelling for an encore, and the band came back out to play “Marie” and “Helen Fry,” the latter of which Simone hopped on drums for. After leaving the stage for a second time, the band came out again after a prolonged absence — during which the crowd chanted “One more song! One more song!” — to end the night with “Frankie’s Gun” and, finally, “Glory Glory.” The crowd clapped and sang along, and the bride and groom came back on stage to dance and sing. I later learned from the manager of Club Helsinki that they’re huge fans of The Felice Brothers and planned their wedding reception at the club as soon as they found out that the band was playing there that night, so that must have been extra special for them. As for the rest of us, it was special anyway. There was a distinct sense of comfort and friendship among the audience and band, and it was a hometown show that felt like just that — home.

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