At San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall late last week, the Felice Brothers proved themselves a long way from the early busking days that broke them onto the music scene back in 2006. A group from Upstate New York (only two actual Felice brothers among them now), they descended onto the Big Apple five years ago and then quickly ascended up the ranks of contemporary Americana, taking festival stages (including the legendary Newport Folk) by storm and securing opening slots with heavyweights like Bright Eyes, fast becoming a household name (at least in houses where indie Americana is paramount).

Their performance last week, though altogether a standout set, made me long for the days of their stripped down song, when the folk prevailed over experiment and the lyrical content was decipherable. For whatever reason—be it the venue’s fault or their own traveling sound person—their instrumentation was washed together and blasted out from the stage in an onslaught of indistinguishable elements—a bummer from a band with a new, more nuanced sound to promote. Their most recent album, May of 2011’s Celebration, Florida, is a departure from the bucolic folk-rock on which they made their name, as they’ve veered into more progressive directions and are exploring a darker palette of noise. The rootsy guitar, accordion, and fiddle  still drive the music, but it’s all a bit more… unhinged now, ready to splay open or inward at any given moment.

This experimental progressiveness became apparent even within the course of single songs, with tempos would jarringly shift or themes would emerge and then fade away. This change of direction alienated more than a few fans in the crowd, for the room began to clear before the encore and the chatter among the attendees was more pronounced than I would have expected. And as much as all this lent itself to a feeling that the band may be suffering from an identity crisis, there is certainly nothing more encouraging than watching a group of artists (and ones on the brink of fame at that) chuck all conventions and expectations and aim for something more interesting and true to their current state of mind. Whether they really are grappling with an identity crisis or just exploring the outer parameters of musical possibility, the Felice Brothers are unapologetically proving to be a band worth watching, whichever direction they decide to go.

Watch the music video for “Ponzi” from Celebration, Florida

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