19th April 2014
Private gig, Twyford, Hampshire, UK
Simone Felice – vocals, guitar
Matty Green – dobro, mandolin
Gabriel Dresdale – cello
Support: Antonio Lulic and John Parker (see below)
Simone Felice is in the middle of a long tour, and this came at the end of the UK section, before he moves into Europe (Norway is next) then to the North-East USA in late May. The tour is in support of the new album, Strangers of which more later. This one was in a wooden building in a private garden, all invited fans and friends, and as intimate a setting you’ll find for anyone, let alone the guy who I think the most significant singer-songwriter of his generation. The Daily Telegraph thought so too, choosing Don’t Wake The Scarecrow as one of the ten “greatest singer-songwriter” songs: among the ten best selected: Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Elton John, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, we deservedly have The Felice Brothers on “Don’t Wake The Scarecrow.” In “the Best of The Rest” (11-20) we have Randy Newman, Neil Young, Carole King, Ian Dury, Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Patti Smith, Loudon Wainwright III, Tom Waits, Janis Ian. Reading their lists, this is not hasty selections. Simone Felice deserves his place in the Best Ten.
The same newspaper also gave the new record five stars. Which is the right call, if you can’t give a Spinal Tap rating of six out of five. If Strangers doesn’t turn out to top the list of Albums of the Year in December 2014 then it will have been a magnificent year.
There’s unplugged, and there’s totally unplugged. I count this as the latter, though the electric dobro and guitar were utilising a practice amp. There were no microphones. This is thrilling in a way that’s hard to quantify. Simone mentioned the freedom of working without mics during the show. It becomes second nature, but a mic, particularly on a stand, ties the singer down, and if you’re playing guitar you need one on a stand, or a head radio mic … but the second needs equipment, sound mixers, and whatever Madonna or Beyoncé thinks, and they have to dance so have no choice, degrades the sound. Leonard Cohen gets his volume and subtlety with a captive, i.e. wired, microphone, the best way to capture and amplify a range from flat out to whisper. Simone Felice was free from the mic throughout which meant that the performance, the way he physically throws himself into each song was unhampered. And it sounded wonderful. ANY microphone adds colouration. I’ve seen him do it in encores, where in small venues, he moves in front of the mic, but here it was throughout.
It’s an interesting line up. A year ago, he had Matty Green on dobro, but bass guitar from Mountain John Luther. This time we have Gabriel Dresdale on cello, replacing bass, and perfect for the more intimate sound. It’s also a good choice for the material from the new album. On Strangers there is a wider palette of sounds compared to Simone Felice. We have guitar, dobro, mandolin, piano, keyboards, strings, drums (often by Simone), bass guitar, cello, a flourish of trumpet here, female vocal backing there. In some songs it rocks more, reminding of the two Duke & The King albums, but in others simple piano and voice for sections, or subtle strings are a new dimension. As with every songwriter there are recognizable Simone Felice styles or melodies … but there are also new styles and unexpected melodic innovations too. I’ve had the album a couple of weeks, and must have listened right through ten times. The obvious question going in was, what from the new album? Seasoned performers have told me that it’s dangerous to play more than three or four from a freshly-minted album live because unfamiliarity interferes with the flow of the show for the audience. I’d guess a lot of people here already had Strangers but it holds good. Simone followed the “rule” and did four as it turned out. What was tantalizing was which four? I guessed two right in advance, and got two wrong … the ones I wrongly predicted were Gettysburg and The Gallows. I thought Gettysburg would get a place because it rocks along, and The Gallows because it’s a beautiful narrative song, told by the guy standing there with the rope around his neck, like a prequel to Long Black Veil. The chorus I am standing on the gallows in a winter rain / but I’m light as a sparrow / ‘cause I’m on my way is one of the most haunting things he’s written. I see he has done it elsewhere on the tour. I could also see Our Lady of The Gun as a chilling live show replacement for New York Times one day, but I think New York Times now sits with Shaky as one he has to do every time he gets on a stage.
I still haven’t said what he did, and there’s no setlist at the start, because I thought I couldn’t review a private gig, but I asked and it’s OK. I wouldn’t have made notes, but you do make an effort to remember if you’re reviewing. I just relaxed and let the music and lyrics hypnotize me.
It started out with New York Times a good choice in the situation because it utilised the full drama of the mic free intimate setting. The second song kept me awake … I didn’t recognize it right off. If I’d known I was reviewing I’d have memorized a few lines and looked. It was Splendor in The Grass (seen linked outside the same room solo last year).
Then came two from the new album with spoken introductions. And I was right, Bye Bye Palenville introduced the new album. Simone put down his guitar, and Matty played the intro keyboard part and keyboard backing on dobro. That was a surprise, and it worked to perfection. Yet another killer line The worm in your brain got you lying awake …I’m sure he’s at the point with an album of predicting what he’ll still be doing two years down the road. This one for sure. He performs it, switching mood, character. Defintely one to sample if you’re thinking of getting the album … no. just get the album. Trust me.
Then came If You Go to LA, the lyric fell into perspective with his intro. I love Bloody Hills echoing Beverley Hills too. It has the Lie Lie Lie Lie chorus for the audience to join in. And everybody did, lifting the rafters.
I’m not sure of running order, but the series of classics always has new interest because of the shifting instrumentation every time I see him, here cello being the focus. If You Ever Get Famous, Gimme All You Got, of course that song chosen as one of the twenty greatest, Don’t Wake The Scarecrow. He joked about singing songs about dead girls … inevitably death and maidens are linked to folk songs, or death and hookers maybe. You and I Belong contrasts with another stomping singalong (LINK HERE to YouTube video from the gig), then a surprise one from Strangers, Running Through My Head.It leapt out the first time I heard it because of the opening line’s echo of the 23rd Psalm, a psalm resonant for someone who has been close to death, but with a twist: Yea, though I walk through the … strip mall. I wouldn’t have guessed this as a brilliant one for audience participation, but it was. Shaky, reinterpreted and reborn again finished the set, not that there was any route offstage.
The encore was the fourth one from Strangers, Molly-O, the tempter track given away on his site before the album.It’s the opener, and he adopts a narrative voice more like Lou Reed or John Mellencamp than anything I’ve heard before. But it also has that big rousing chorus like Gimme All You Got and You And I Belong. I assume it’s been done differently … reviews of the tour mentions drums on stage … because it was a request, they had to think about it, and he mentioned ‘trying it unplugged’. The secret of so many of his songs is that they work however he does them. Molly-O contains a challenge, a bit like poets trying to find a rhyme for “orange.” I’d guess a knowing one. Years ago, a reviewer said that had the Woodstock Festival in 1969 been correctly named the Poughkeepsie Festival, Joni Mitchell would never have been able to write a song about it. Simone’s done it:
Oh, my that road sign says fifty miles to Poughkeepsie
And she said: It’s you and only you, baby blue, who can bring out the gypsy, in me.
It was the second anniversary of Levon Helm’s death. The show ended with Simone talking about today’s date, and of how he heard of Levon’s passing while on the boat to Ireland, then he said as kids they’d ride their bikes past Big Pink, and that for a young musician in the Woodstock area, Levon was a mentor, and was like a “patron saint.” He then dedicated a song to the ghost of Levon, and added “and of course to the ghost of Richard Manuel, and to the ghost of Rick Danko.” Simone then sang the most heartfelt and impassioned version of “I Shall Be Released” I have ever heard with everyone in the audience joining in.
Strangers: Simone Felice 2014
The strength of Strangers is apparent. There are ten tracks. Simone played four of the first five. Or four of Side One of the vinyl edition. It’s as if they looked at what to do and said, ‘Can’t miss that one. OK. Can’t miss that one either. OK, that one has to go in. Mm. That one too. So they hit the four before they even turned the LP over. The thing is, they could do exactly the same with the other side. And I hope they do one day. There are not many albums you can do that with.
Antonio Lulic and John Parker
Antonio Lulic – vocals, guitar, 4-string guitar, baritone guitar
John Parker – double bass
It’s quite the year for great support acts. Antonio Lulic is from Sunderland, and was supported by double bassist John Parker. Double basses look big, but this looked HUGE. Antonio mentioned folk clubs, which is where you play if you accompany yourself and can’t afford a band. I’d put this more in singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy / Jon Boden (SOLO – not Spiers and Boden) territory rather than traditional folk. The astute use of double bass is a major part of it. That bass was plucked, bowed, and gave an extraordinary range of tones and sounds. Forget the dull farting of the trad jazz double bass, this was virtuoso bass playing of the highest order. The songs were great. Two were new and not yet recorded, which is a shame because I would have bought them. Again, no intention of review so no notes, but one written on a train from Austin, Texas had that in its title, and another was called 2012. It would have been worth going just to see the support, and I’ll look out for them.