Simone Felice, plus Jason McNiff (support)
The Attic Room at The Railway
13th April 2011
Rating: Eleven out of ten.
Link to 2012 review at the same venue.
The Attic Room is a tiny venue at The Railway pub, designed as an acoustic space (though both performers used mics and amplified acoustic guitars) and they have a larger rock venue downstairs too. The Attic Room is also the venue I’ve enjoyed most in years. It’s an intimate space with the stage along the long side of a rectangle, and seats eighty according to their website. I’d guessed about a hundred without counting. It was sold out very fast.
Jason McNiff did the support set. He looked afflicted with stage fright between numbers, but the songs were great. Beautifully, sung, immediately strong melodies and great lyrics. The one about partisans in Italy was the star of the set for me. For the guitar buffs, the lovely well-worn Epiphone acoustic had a rich tone to complement his playing.
Simone Felice sat in a big leather chair on stage for ten minutes before his set, checking through his novel Black Jesus which is about to be published, and from which he did a reading mid-set. I’d heard so many superlatives about his solo act, and people had said nothing prepares you for the intensity.
I’ll add to the superlatives. Simone has the charisma and talent of a major star. I was taken to task for comparing his act to the best I’ve ever seen, but only by people who weren’t there. It reminded me of seeing David Bowie, right at the start of the Hunky Dory tour in 1971, just before his career went stratospheric. I hasten to add there’s no stylistic similarity, but the combination of powerful songs, perfectly sung with charisma works. Someone said it must be like seeing Neil Young in one of his earliest solo acoustic concerts, the combination of quality material and sheer intensity. Simone threw himself 100% into the mood of every song, reflecting the content of the song from tragedy to horror to teen memories to cheerfulness. In between the show was totally informal, seemingly deciding on its own momentum. Halfway through, he smiled, said ‘I have to pee,’ and left us for two minutes.
The Neil Young comparison is apposite. It covers appearance, personal tragedy, and the fact that Simone operates solo, and also as part of The Duke & The King, and switches between these roles. I had a comment from someone who saw The Felice Brothers several times, and said they were fine, but nowhere near as good as I was saying Simone solo was. First, The Duke & The King is a radical departure in sound from The Felice Brothers, and much more accesible too. The Felice Brothers, like any younger band from Woodstock, found themselves compared to The Band. While this isn’t as daft as comparing Mercury Rev to The Band (just because they lived in Woodstock and Garth Hudson played on a track), it’s still wrong.
Long Live The Duke & The King was my favourite album of 2010 by a mile. I was disappointed that the other three were not going to be present, but that was dispelled as soon as he started. Like Neil Young, he functions in both situations. I’m not a musician, but I’ve given many talks solo, and also with co-authors. I’ve acted as a team in sketches and plays, and performed solo. There’s a different feel. It’s great when a group of people unite to achieve a common aim. There’s buzz to it. There’s a different feel to doing it solo. The thrill of doing it solo is you can replan your intent, alter timing, shift stuff about at will. I can see why Simone enjoys functioning in both set ups. I had the solo LP a month ago, and enjoyed it. It does not prepare you for the full live experience.
Set list? Who was writing a set list? We were all transfixed. I’ll just have to remember roughly what he played. From Long Live The Duke & The King we got Shine On (I think? False memory?) , Gloria, Shaky. He did the B-side of the Shaky single, Radio Silence. From Nothing Gold Can Stay we got Summer Morning Rain, The Morning I Get To Hell, Union Street, If You Ever Get Famous, and One More American Song. It doesn’t take much thinking to realise the earlier album is a richer source for solo shows, as by Long Live The Duke & The King the other voices were being incorporated into the concept. From The Felice Brothers era, we got Mercy, Radio Song and Don’t Wake The Scarecrow. There was a new song with chilling lines about a pervert and a ballet class, and a chorus about getting in the New York Times. The first two encores had people calling out requests. He did Long May You Run for the nod to Neil, then Mercy in response to a request. After the largest ovation I’ve ever heard from that many people he finished with Radio Song. Most of us got handshakes and a few words on the way out.
This year I’ve seen two of the best dozen shows of my life: The Unthanks (the second time, at Eastleigh) and Simon Felice at Winchester. You can’t get more superlative than that.