When Simone Felice and his brothers went to high school they would hop on a bus in their hamlet of Palenville and ride thirty minutes or so to the county town of Catskill, passing a mural of its most celebrated resident: Iron Mike – The Dynamite Kid. After Tyson fell from grace the mural became neglected and eventually disappeared. Fleeting fame is a recurring theme in Simone Felice’s work. Tonight he half sang, half spoke a vaguely recognisable rhyme that eventually revealed itself as the chorus of ‘Fast Car’, “Be someone …” then seguing neatly into ‘If You Ever Get Famous’. This is one of three “The Duke and the King” songs performed tonight from his acclaimed post Felice Brothers project from around 2010, a critically praised partnership that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
In an echo of his beginnings on the New York slam poetry scene, Felice read “They’d Hang on My Every Word,” ultimately reflecting on how celebrity and adulation is doomed to result in isolation. The poem comes from his new album ‘The Projector’ from where much of tonight’s material is drawn. Lauded universally, the album combines roots ballads with sparse instrumentation. It’s even sparser in tonight’s solo set where he accompanies himself on semi-acoustic, sometimes halting mid-song before punching out the next line. ‘The Projector’ has been referred to as Felice’s ‘Nebraska’, but when he opened his set with the title track and then later sang ‘To Be You To Be Me’ it struck me that part of this work is embedded in the English folk tradition reminiscent of the poetic lyricism and wistfulness of Roy Harper, or even of very early Cat Stevens.
A huge moon hung incongruously from the vaulted roof of the listed Rennie Mackintosh church that was tonight’s venue. Felice was thrilled to be performing in this building anyway but the grey illuminated globe (a touring art installation) dwarfed his slight figure giving the show added gravity as he played the outlaw preacher tonight – bearded, long haired in a black coat and white shirt opened loosely to his chest. He opened up his darker side when talking about his hospitalisation in 2012 for emergency heart surgery, the second close brush with death he has experienced, telling the audience that he hallucinated that his family were in the hallway when it was actually 3am and the ward was empty. He introduced ‘New York Times’ saying that when he originally wrote the song about the press fixation with bad news he had thought that things couldn’t get any worse – “Little did I know …” he reflected before launching into a haunting rendition of the song. He lightened the atmosphere with a sing along around ‘Bye Bye Palenville’ and a whistled intro to the Felice Brothers’ ‘Don’t Wake the Scarecrow’ before closing on ‘War Movie,’ his lone voice reverberating in space.
Felice returned to perform The Duke and the King’s gentle lullaby ‘Union St’ and a poignant rendition of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme,’ taught to him in childhood by his grandmother. It is this link to family and place that was the common thread in tonight’s performance, and perhaps in all his work: poems, novels, songs. He still lives in upstate NY and in using the familiar geography of childhood he has successfully created a convincing mythology around it. As Pawtucketville was to Kerouac or Lake Wobegon to Garrison Keillor, Palenville and the Catskills are to Felice – somewhere that, on a clear night in early May, the moon seems so close that you can reach up and grab it out of the dark sky.