Photos: Liam Williams
Awaiting the arrival of Simone Felice on stage, I can’t help but gravitate towards the retro drum kit stage right. To most it masks itself as an
old 1940′s Ludwig Jazz kit, the old snare lugs, the tom arm lunging from the bass drum. I snigger to myself, knowing that the kit is made by Missouri based custom drum outfit the C&C Drum Company. C&C are known for making some of the most modern looking drums around, it is interesting to see an almost “frozen in time” take for a modern set up. Something that is all too relevant to tonight’s main attraction Simone Felice.
Simone would be known to many as the former drummer/vocalist/guitarist with the Felice Brothers. Their singles have been a mainstay on Irish and UK radio since bursting on to the scene in 2008. Simone left the band in 2009 to begin work on a new project The Duke & The King with Robert ‘Chicken’ Burke. Keeping with the alt country tinged theme, the new project released the fantastic and highly praised album Nothing Gold Can Stay in 2009. Simone also doubles as an author, having released books entitled Goodbye Amelia, Hail Mary, Full of Holes and Black Jesus.
Felice takes to the stage looking like an enigmatic renegade. He sits on his stool, head to toe in black, coupled with a pair of boots you could use to bust down a door or two. Surrounded by his two guy/two girl backing band, he launches into the set with an ode to his newly born daughter, ‘Pearl’. The four to the floor kick drum and mandolin bashing turns the Avenue into a Catskill barn. As most of the floor is set up for seating and the crowd age is averaging 40+, most settle for a gentle grin and a head bop. From there we are reminded “just as long as we got rock n’ roll we’ll be alright”, as vocalist/violinist Simi Stone slides in and out of some honky tonk piano. Bass duties are also replaced by low end piano as the backing band prove just how dynamic they can be.
Observing Simone Felice throughout the show is a feat in itself. I can’t help but feel I’m in the presence of greatness. Although the drum kit is gimmicked, Felice proves to be as legit as they come. Over the course of the hour plus set, he refers to his daughter (“the lamp to his darkness”), his mother (“son, why are all your songs about drugs and dead prostitutes?”) and his best friend, recently returned from Iraq (“he has wounds, but we can’t see them”). People say the best authors write about what they know. Felice is no different.
I’m always sceptical about going to see a “guy with an acoustic” gig but I walked away tonight spellbound. What Felice provides over the course of the night is an insight into his world. From the first word you’re captivated by his realness. This guy doesn’t need a gimmick, every word is delivered with prowess and meaning. The lyrical content is remorseful yet ambitious, delicate yet powerful. The crowd hang on his every word and Felice drives home his great knack for storytelling. When you think of the captivating lyricists of the last century, Dylan is always the first that comes to mind. Dylan wrote about real life situations at the time of recording. The working man, the beauty of a local river, the Nashville skyline, death and regret. Observed through the eye of a poet, delivered through the voice of a generation. Felice is no different. Only this time the beautiful rivers are replaced with meth-laden south eastern towns, the consequences of Uncle Sam and his venture into IRAQ and a lover’s thought of Felice leaving the Catskill mountains – “keep an eye on the driver, cause as the highway unwinds, boy, the way home fades and can be so hard to find”.
As the night progresses we are treated to a fine array of folk/country that dabbles into Stones territory with ‘On my Radio’. The song receives one of the biggest pops of the night, and deservedly so. Equipped with its own “ooh ooooh” outro refrain, the song is a fitting tribute to rock music on the radio and proves this man can write a hit. The set finishes with a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ that seamlessly transforms into Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heavens Door’. The old G, D, C guitar chords, proving to be the itinerary. If this was any other gig I’d be making my way to the cloakroom right about now. Instead I watch in amazement as Felice lets the crowd take over the refrain. It’s almost as if they’ve been put under a spell as the chorus of voices extract all kind of emotions in the room. It’s a fitting close to what we’ve just encountered. One of the most captivating songs about life in a small town transforming itself into a song about a dying deputy, who can no longer continue his role. In this case Felice is the deputy and he’s just taken the room on a journey through his life.
The band finish and are met with what appears to be an all too rare standing ovation. The band stand united across the stage, surprised, yet humbled by the response. I catch a glimpse of the drummer, she looks teary eyed and emotional too. It’s almost like she spent the last hour and a half re-living the life of Simone Felice too. At this stage, I would expect a guy like Felice to disappear into the back, like his persona would suggest. Instead he hops straight into the crowd to shake hands with his audience. Speaking softly and thanking them for their hospitality, the rest of the audience are still transfixed by his every move. Looking around the room, the expressions say a lot. You can tell that we have all witnessed something special, a one of a kind, a dying breed, a purveyor of existence crushed by broken promises lying at the heart of the American dream.