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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Light Snow
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At Union South, appealing Felice Brothers preside over a chaotic hootenanny
Trademark elements of a Felice performance were in place.
Trademark elements of a Felice performance were in place.
Credit:Joe Tarr

The chaotic nature of the band's live show is undeniably appealing. Somewhere between back porch hootenanny and 1980s rock show, their energy and their truck stop fashion sense make the five-member band instantly lovable, and they have a thrumming, kinetic stage presence. The audience filling the bottom floor of the Sett bopped and hollered enthusiastically in response to every song.

Highlights of the night included an intense rendition of "The Big Surprise" and an up-tempo sing-along of "Whiskey in My Whiskey." I've never known a Madison audience to hesitate in demanding a favorite song at a show, so an encore including the beloved "Frankie's Gun" was no surprise.

Trademark elements of a Felice performance were firmly in place. Fiddle player Greg Farley's hand-clapping entreaties to the crowd at the front of the stage, Ian Felice singing while perched atop the kick drum, and James Felice's bear hug accordion style kept the crowd up front engaged.

The introduction of a couple of samplers to the instrumental lineup is part of a departure from the band's rollicking folk roots on their new album, Celebration, Florida. The incorporation of samples in Saturday night's songs could have been fascinating, but fans at the show will have to buy the album -- set for release this Tuesday -- to know for sure what the new songs really sound like. The sound quality in the Sett's beautiful-but-cavernous room was too muddy for listeners to make heads or tails of the new sonic layer -- or many of the lyrics.

If openers Shovels and Rope didn't quite steal the show, they at least made off with a lot of hearts. The duo, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, are husband-and-wife musical dynamos who found a new clutch of Madison fans last month when they opened for Hayes Carll at High Noon Saloon.

Trent and Hearst are great musicians individually, and as a duo they have the brilliance and the instant charisma you'd find in a love child of Dolly Parton and the White Stripes. Both are multi-instrumentalists, trading off on drums, guitar and harmonica. Their harmony vocals fall easily into place and their songwriting is full of a road-weary hopefulness that makes each tune seem familiar from the first listen.

During their set, two bartenders linked arms and do-si-doed behind the taps, and audience members who had been content to sit at tables around the room couldn't resist moving toward the stage to dance and clap.

Once the Sett settles into its identity as a venue and figures out how to best manage its sound and space, it'll be easier to say for sure what the hell is going on onstage. In the meantime, Shovels and Rope and the Felice Brothers helped the crowd embrace the chaos.

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