Snake oil, honey and rock ‘n roll; The rise and rise of Simone Felice
Maverick (UK)’s Alan J Taylor had cause to take a little road trip with Simone Felice (of Duke & The King) during his recent solo musical and literary foray to the UK.
Simone (pronounced Simone) Felice was busy tucking into a hearty home made potato and vegetable soup when I arrived in Leeds to pick him up for the trip across to Liverpool. Nursing a ‘little cold’ he’d picked up on the earlier trip to Edinburgh, the vehicle was soon permeated with the smell of eucalyptus and menthol ‘snake oil’ as he attempted to open up his lungs a little. The solo tour had so far been a huge success, with sell outs at every venue and a fantastic reception from crowds, so pleased to see him on stage again after his recent health scare.
For those not entirely familiar with the story, it was almost two months to the day since he had been on the operating table having open heart surgery for a dangerously narrowed and incompetent aortic valve (the main vessel exiting the heart.) Pausing briefly to take a spoonful of ‘special honey’ Felice elaborated, “Yeah, the surgeon said that I was surviving on around one eighth of normal flow and that I probably would have either died on stage or on a long haul flight, had the problem not been corrected.” He continued, “when I woke up, I was so pleased to hear my family and friends chatting in the emergency room, I said to the nurse ‘am I alive?, its so great that everyone could come along’. She said, ‘Mr Felice it’s three am, there’s no one here, why don’t you take a another little shot of your morphine’.” He laughed, but winced slightly at the memory, taking a deep breath, two fingers resting lightly on his breast-bone that was so recently split apart. “The surgeon said I should take lots of walks in the fresh air and do lots of deep breathing.” With that we detoured off the M62 and took a short walk over the Lancashire moor land, wind mills turning gently in the distance and a curlew occasionally breaking the silence.
A lot had happened in his life during the last eighteen months, he’d left the ascending and successful Felice Brothers’, to front his own band the ‘Duke and The King’, done two hugely successful tours of the UK, got married to his long term partner Jessie, had a daughter called Pearl, narrowly escaped an early death and was now in the middle of a solo UK tour. It was clear as we walked that he savoured every breath, “I am so grateful” he said, “to everyone who sent all the messages and positive energy to me to help me through, I owe them all so much.”
Watching the trails of the aeroplanes and recalling the silence of the volcanic ash clouds the conversation suddenly turned to 09/11, a subject that appears in some of his writing, “It was a shock when it happened, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise, I guess we never really learned the lessons of Vietnam.” I was intrigued, “Vietnam” I repeated. “Yes,” Felice continued, “I’ve always personally been fascinated by the events, I was born the year after the war ended but I can still recall seeing those ‘Vietnam Vets’ wandering around the town where I lived, I read a lot and the music of the time said so much about it, but we never learned the lessons” He paused briefly and stared hard at the aeroplane trails in the sky. “Modern life has become so frantic, we’re all so busy, but sometimes I’m not sure that anyone realises that it all just hangs by a thread. The more I read about the American Civil war and Vietnam and our current conflicts, the more I wonder whether man was born into conflict, sometimes it seems almost primeval . . . inevitable”.
I reminded him that he had a gig that evening and time was moving on, it was time to head back for the second leg of the journey where Felice, ever eager to please his loyal followers was playing a ‘house gig’ to 35 people in a flat in Liverpool. The night turned out to be a huge success with the flat crammed to the rafters and people listening out on the street through the open windows. Leaning out of the window precariously, he invited them in for the last two numbers, they were more than delirious to help out with the singing on Felice’s version of Neil Young’s Helpless, complete with a verse of Amazing Grace.
The trip down to London for the next gig at the Old Church in St Pancras gave Felice some time to muse and create. Clearly preoccupied, he seems to be constructing songs as we drove, occasionally breaking out into a drum beat or random spontaneous singing, every now and then taking in that deep breath as if reminding himself that he’s still on this earth. He told me a little about his previous brush with mortality when as a child, at the age of 12 years, he suffered a brain aneurysm and was apparently pronounced clinically dead following brain surgery in hospital. After miraculously surviving, he spent several months in intensive care relearning basic motor skills, including reading and writing.
So, savouring his third stab at life and with a new solo album LIVE FROM A LONELY PLACE already in the bag, a new D&TK album, LONG LIVE DUKE AND THE KING due for imminent release, plus a new novel about to be launched, I suggested he appeared to have been working pretty hard. He replied, “Yeah, I guess having time after the operation to stop and think during my recuperation helped the creative process. As I said, the doctors said I should take regular walks and do lots of breathing exercises and generally look after myself, but it wasn’t long before I was singing again . . . what better way to breath?” He laughed and continued “A lot of the songs had already been recorded prior to the surgery, but I managed to write some more stuff and we recorded the songs at home in the barn. The experience I went through seems to focus you, plus I felt as if my mind was working better, as if it had regained it’s blood supply (from a medical perspective it truly had! . . . the aorta supplies feeder arteries to the brain) which is fantastic for a poet or a songwriter!” He continued, “We also had time to work together as a band, on our harmonies and it has been so rewarding . . . Simi, Chicken and Noel have such fantastic voices I just feel blessed to be in their company and I think you will see when the new album is released what work we have put in, the album has much more of a soul feel as you will see”
With Danny Goldberg (Gold Village Entertainment) as his new manager, Felice explained that the day to day hassles of the music business were steadily being ironed out, leaving him free to create, “Danny manages Steve Earle amongst others, which means he pretty much knows the music business inside out, I trust him and his team have been brilliant so far” he said. He went on, “I learnt from some tough times on the street as a kid to have a keen eye for a shyster and there are plenty of them in this business, I only work with people I know I can trust.”
As we approached London, Felice’s focus became palpable, “I really need to make the show in the ‘Old Church’ tonight a great experience for everyone,” he said, “apparently it is one of the oldest sites of Christian worship.” “I’m gonna get me a lap steel player and maybe a drummer it should be pretty exiting.” With that he went into a series of phone calls to agents, keen to organise his interviews with the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph prior to the show. It wasn’t long before the eucalyptus oil came out again and we were in a fog of menthol and deep breaths.
That evening, running on pure adrenaline (plus a spot of honey and herbal tea) Felice was indeed true to his word, he quickly whipped up his newly acquired drummer and lap steel player (they had previously played a gig together at the Green Man Festival) into shape in a whirl wind rehearsal, before putting on a majestic performance in the most beautiful of churches. The place was packed and sat on an ancient carved wooden chair to a candle lit backdrop, Felice put on a performance to remember using a couple of irritating sound hitches to illustrate his professionalism and performance skills, including a brief scene from ‘The Exorcist’ to a delighted crowd. A short recital from his forthcoming book Black Jesus (‘To Hell With’ Publishing) had the audience literally spell bound, particularly when the church bell chimed a exactly the right moment in the story! . . . you just couldn’t have planned it better. With characteristic wide eyed delivery and the occasional between song manner of a revivalist preacher, Felice stormed through a one and a half hour set which included many of the Felice Brother’s staples, the Duke and the King favourites and some of the songs from the new album. Four encores later, it was clear that he could have gone on all night. With a call to Mat Boulter the lap steel player (also of Deer Park) to “learn one play one” they finished with a cover of Still’s & Young’s Long May You Run . . . the crowd were breathless as they left the church, happy in the knowledge that they had witnessed a truly religious experience AJT.
The Duke & The King return to the UK in October 2010