- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

“We’ve found ways to make life on the road healthy and livable,” Tony Dekker explains from a gas station in southern Oregon, where the songwriter has stopped momentarily to replenish his band’s gasoline and VitaminWater supply.

Great Lake Swimmers are on the road in support of the recently released “Lost Channels,” a nuanced album that was recorded during a trip to the Thousand Islands region in Ontario. Following several weeks of American shows, the band will head overseas for a monthlong European tour, followed by several homecoming performances in Canada.

The schedule certainly sounds taxing, but Mr. Dekker is happy to be performing again. “Looking back on our catalog, we’re now able to put together some very cohesive sets of music,” he says. “It’s great to have some fresh songs to play.”

“Lost Channels” takes its name from a mysterious region in the Thousand Islands where many boats disappeared during the late 1700s. Although its history is somewhat eerie, the area is beautiful nonetheless, with vibrant plant growth and pint-size islands dotting the waterways. It’s also an apt backdrop for Great Lake Swimmers, whose music pits rural instrumentation against measured, melancholic melodies and flourishes of lively folk-pop.

“We had a chance meeting with an aerial photographer and historian of the Thousand Islands region,” Mr. Dekker explains, “and he pointed us toward some interesting places in the area. It turned out to be very fruitful.” Under the historian’s guidance, Great Lake Swimmers recorded songs in several Thousand Islands locations, including a turn-of-the-century castle on Dark Island and a picturesque chapel in Rockport, Ontario.

“We also used regular studios in Toronto and London, Ontario,” adds the singer, “so it was just a matter of pulling all those pieces together and weaving them into a cohesive whole.” Part of Great Lake Swimmers’ appeal is the way the music appears to mirror the environment in which it was created. On the paradoxically titled “Everything Is Moving So Fast,” an acoustic guitar underscores the melody at a gentle pace, while homespun percussion and vocal harmonies add a sense of farmhouse elegance to the song’s refrain. Rivers and frozen landscapes are evoked throughout — by Mr. Dekker’s voice and by the atmospheric ambience that coats his words. Although the singer says the recording location doesn’t influence his own songwriting, he does deem it an important part of an album’s creation.

“It’s a great effort to record on location — to set up equipment, gauge acoustics and turn a place into a recording studio. To document a space like that takes a lot of work, but at the same time, it is inspiring. It’s really become a big part of the creative process for us.”

Great Lake Swimmers’ tour floats into the D.C. area Tuesday. The band will visit the Black Cat with opening act Kati Maki, who takes the stage after 9 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Band of brothers

Two years ago, few people outside of New York City had heard of the Felice Brothers. The band’s shows were limited to dynamic performances on Manhattan street corners and subway platforms, where the musicians attracted passers-by with a blend of folk, country and irreverent gospel music.

“The best places were Penn Station, Grand Central and Union Square,” recalls accordionist James Felice. “There were just so many great musicians there, and you’d have to arrive early to claim your spot.

“People would have property battles.”

Despite competition from rival street performers, the Felice Brothers’ music was uniquely arresting, with clear ties to Bob Dylan’s poetic drawl and the Band’s ramshackle attitude. Such influences were hardly coincidental, as the band’s three siblings — Ian, Simone and James — were raised in the Catskill Mountains, mere miles from the influential music hamlet of Woodstock, N.Y. A number of classic folk artists once found inspiration in Woodstock, and the Felice family chased a similar muse every Sunday afternoon, when they gathered on the family porch to play music.

What began as a family act soon evolved into a proper quintet, with two friends rounding out the lineup. The Felice Brothers relocated to New York City and soon secured a record deal on the strength of their informal street performances. Although they have traversed several continents since that time, James Felice says they still have ties to their Northeastern roots.

“We actually played in the subway a couple of weeks ago,” he says with a laugh. “We were broke, and we needed some money for food. We were a little rusty, unfortunately, but we like to keep it real by coming back to the subway. It makes sure we’re not getting soft.”

Perhaps the band’s rusty subway performance was the result of a brief touring hiatus, which commenced last year as the musicians began recording another album, “Yonder Is the Clock.” Released Tuesday, it features melancholic narratives about plagues, Northeastern winters and turn-of-the-century baseball stars. The songs were recorded in a converted chicken coop.

“There are 13 songs on this record,” James Felice explains, “and 11 of them were recorded totally live. A lot of them were first takes. It was just a matter of capturing things while they were hot and then moving on.

“We were better musicians and better songwriters this time around; I guess we had a lot of practice over the last year.”

The Felice Brothers recently returned to the road in support of “Yonder Is the Clock,” and they will stop Wednesday at the Birchmere in Alexandria. Tickets are $20, and the show begins at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by Samantha Crain & the Midnight Shivers.

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