You know it’s going to be quite a heavy evening when Simi Stone (support act ) opens with a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ and talks of escaping a “crazy scene” back in Detroit which had recently claimed the life of a friend. It is not uncommon for the support at a small gig like this to be given relatively short shrift as people normally tend to continue to frequent the bar and talk over them. Tonight at the Brudenell however, you can hear a pin drop. This is justifiably so with how amazingly talented she is as songs like ‘Good Girl’ demonstrate. Simi for all her grace and heroin chic beauty beauty opens as support, yet she is however also a key member of this evening’s main act.
Simone Felice is an artist very much in touch with his own mortality having almost died twice, once at the age of 12 from a brain aneurysm and as recently as two years ago from heart problems. With this in mind you get the feeling that Felice’s tremendously spiritually intense delivery is incredibly sincere. As co-writer, drummer and singer in The Felice Brothers (alongside his brothers Ian and James) he was a member of the Americana revival of recent years in the U.S. alongside bands such as Bright Eyes and Old Crow Medicene Show. They were famed for the sheer manic energy of their live shows as much as their gut wrenching, Southern country rock sound achieving great cult success before Simone felt the need to spread his wings and form his own band. With The Duke and the King, Felice created a softer and perhaps more commercial sound. Their two albums so far have been more of a combination of both country and soul (Simi Stone being also a member of this outfit).
Amidst his first official solo tour of the U.K. (all be it with a three musician strong backing band) he can appear rather serious and talks in between songs in a stern manner at times with the tone and look of a man who has lived beyond his years. Yet Felice never fails to captivate his audience. It could be said that he romanticises old America to an extent and borrows heavily from the core of great twentieth century rock n’ roll with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and obviously The Band (the recently passed Levon Helm has a song dedicated to him) almost with him in certain songs. If you are going to be influenced by anyone however, that’s not a bad line up to attempt to channel the essence of.
Each number performed paints a more vivid picture of tragic old American folk lore re-imagined and told in modern times; this is soulful, bluesy roots music. It’s delivered tenderly, occasionally angrily and is always engaging. ‘Hey, Bobby Ray’ tells the story of a young Native American girl raped and murdered by a white man. Felice threatens that the killer will get what he deserves though he realistically hints this likely won’t happen within this life. ‘You and I belong’ is an uplifting expression of the pure joy of life inspired by the birth of his first daughter with his long term partner (which followed both a very late miscarriage and his open heart surgery). He digs into his large repertoire of his new solo record, The Felice Brothers as well as The Duke and the King. As evident on songs like ‘Union Street’, Felice tends to treat his gigs like a sermon in which he is the preacher and yet he looks like a prohibition outlaw. For the grand finale he brings the house down with a big sing-a-long of Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ (with Simi Stone again taking centre stage) before blending the song straight into a quite apt cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. Upon finishing Felice jumped into the crowd to say farewell to all in what has been a rather moving experience at the Brudenell. I shook the man’s hand.