Simone Felice - a new musical force at the helm
At about the same time the legendary drummer, singer and songwriter Levon Helm - best known for his work with The Band - passed away almost three months ago, another singing sticks man, Simone Felice, released his debut self-titled solo record.
Felice, a product of rural upstate New York, is not new to music and recording, as regular readers know. He is, however, now finding his true voice. Helm was obviously an inspiration and mentor, as you can hear in the online tribute he posted to the Arkansas musician.
“Levon Helm is more than a drummer. More than a singer,” wrote Felice. “He is a natural force, akin to weather and sunlight, not very different from the quiet wood in which he made his home, the wind that whips the trees. You could walk from Arkansas to Alberta, Winnipeg to Woodstock and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more soulful, gracious man.”
Anyone who’s enjoyed the work of Simone and his brothers, James and Ian, on the early Felice Brothers records or his later recording with his own band, the Duke and the King, will know the feel and sense of this record. It’s at once new English folk - there’s even guest spots from Mumford and Sons - and east coast Americana.
Deeply personal songs, casual observations, insightful takes on modern life dance across the 10 songs. The opening Hey Bobby Ray has a mix of history, native Indian American alienation and urban domestic reality, abuse and all. With the backing of a choir, the Catskill High School Treblaires, his sings a bleak chorus, “Hey Bobby Ray/You got it coming boy/You get your day/Everybody gets their day”, which becomes more and more haunting as the song builds.
From there it’s a jaunty, spiritual You and I Belong which shouts Sunday morning church-going, clapping and whistling included.
It’s when you get to the absolutely stunning New York Times - another history-soaked modern life slice which Felice previewed when he was here a year ago promoting his first novel, Black Jesus - you realise the fragile genius of this guy.
At 12 he suffered a brain aneurysm and was pronounced clinically dead for a very short time and then, two years ago, he had open heart surgery to have a mechanical valve put into his beating chest. This kind of life clearly has an effect on you.
In New York Times he sings “Every new year/We come to Times Square/And we all howl there/When the big ball drops/So don’t trust your junk mate/Don’t touch the third rail/And baby don’t you dare hail the king of pop”. His voice is as intimate as they come, breath driven but deeply rich and, at the right moments, just breaking that little bit.
Later on Felice takes us back to the death of the movie queen wife of Roman Polanski at the hands of Charlie Manson’s maniac disciples while another song to a live woman, Courtney Love, is a far away love plea to the Hole singer and Kurt Cobain’s last lover. “Take a chance/Come away with me,’’ he pleads.
The last song on the disc is Splendor in the Grass, a hushed pean to his baby daughter born three weeks after his heart surgery. Against passionately gentle guitar work and a bleeding violin, Felice talks about “the cool grass on my spine/I feel so close to something fine” before the fade out is filled with 20 seconds of that mechanical heart valve, tick, tick, ticking. He found recording after the operation a challenge - he said he had to put on three or four jumpers and a ski jacket and the microphone still picked up the valve.
As good as all this is, there’s plenty more. Real folk songs like Dawn Brady’s Son and Stormy Eyed Sarah - tunes that prompted British critic Jez Collins to name check Felice with the pre-muslim conversion Cat Stevens, a comparison that’s deliciously near the mark - and some that Townes Van Zandt would have been proud of, like Gimme All You Got and Charade. It’s a truly sublime record, touching nerves raw, jangling and loving.
This is a drummer who knows words and, with the natural timing that goes with the calling, can space them and cut them short just as needed.
Felice is back in Australia this week touring with a mid-western troubadour Josh Ritter from Moscow, Idaho, now a resident in Brooklyn, NYC. Ritter has his own new disc to talk up, So Runs the World Away, originally released elsewhere two years back but just available here along with a six song EP, Bring in the D3arlings.
Anyone who’s heard and seen Ritter during his previous outings here will know his stuff, usually stretched large with a rocking band. This time, as with Felice, it’s just him and his guitar. There’ll be plenty of good music to fill out a night that will be surely be one to remember.
Felice and Ritter begin their tour at the Old Museum in Brisbane tonight (Thursday, July 5) before going to Sydney for two dates at Notes in Newtown (Friday) and the Basement in the city (Sunday) and then playing the Corner Hotel in Melbourne (next Thursday). The pair finish at the Dumbalk North Town Hall in southern Gippsland on Friday the 13th.
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