“For the first record we had to come through the fire and now we’re on the other side, rolling down the river to the light of the harbour. But that’s the river of life. You never know what the next bend is going to hold.” – Simone Felice
When old friends Simone Felice and Bobbie ‘Bird’ Burke retreated to their studio/cabin deep in the Bearsville woods just across the creek from the grave of Bob Dylan’s notorious manager Albert Grossman, they had but one aim; to heal some wounds by recording a collection of emotional new songs on two-inch tape. Little did they know wher
Shaky music video
e this next bend in the river of life would take them. And so commenced an unlikely journey that saw these intimate tales transported from their minds and souls and into the hearts of people all over the world.
Emerging from The Catskills, an artistic hub that hosted Woodstock and inspired Bob Dylan and The Band, Felice, also a renowned poet and spoken word artist, spent his late teenage years in the vitriolic punk-metal band Eight Body Trunk, before later immersing himself in a roots-orientated sound alongside his siblings in The Felice Brothers. As one of the band’s key songwriters, Simone contributed to their three breakthrough albums ‘Tonight At The Arizona’, their self-titled album released in 2008 and ‘Yonder Is The Clock.’ In addition, he also contributed drums to The Avett Brothers’ major label debut ‘I and Love and You’ following a personal request from super producer Rick Rubin.
Meanwhile, Burke, originally from Brooklyn, collaborated with George Clinton, drummed with Toshi Reagon’s BIGLovely and formed DRUGS with other Clinton / Parliament-Funkadelic cohorts including Garry Shider, Lige Curry and Michael ‘Clip’ Payne.
Named The Duke & The King in tribute to the two grifters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and whose experiences are semi-allegorical to the band’s own), Felice and Burke released the songs from the Bearsville sessions as ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’, a reflective album of rock, folk, soul and psychedelia that earned glowing reviews and a plethora of Album of the Year nods from the critics. Joining them came drummer/vocalist Nowell ‘The Deacon’ Haskins, the son of Parliament-Funkadelic co-founder and Westbound Records solo artist Fuzzy Haskins, who contributed his soulful vocals to the album’s haunting slowburner ‘Lose My Self.’ “We knew he could really get inside what we were creating,” recalls Felice with evident admiration. “He was definitely a chosen one, a special component.”
The trio’s adventures on the road commenced with a short trip to Woodstock for the opening night of The Duke & The King’s first ever American tour. They were greeted by the support act, The Sensational Simi Stone, another old friend who would join them on violin later that night for a performance of ‘Don’t Wake The Scarecrow’, a song which Simone had written while with The Felice Brothers. “We thought, holy shit this chick is magical!” exclaims Felice. “She was working as a waitress, so the next day we got in the van, stopped off at her job in New York City and went in to tell her boss that she wasn’t working there any more.”
Stone earned her stripes on the three-week tour during which the band slept in the van or stayed at the kind of remote motels vacated by vagabonds, thieves and the eternally weary. It was, says Felice, “the kind of experience that makes you know someone is a keeper.” Soon enough, this motley crew headed to the UK for the first time where their live dates included an attention-grabbing performance on Later with Jools Holland; no mean feat for a band who, despite being firm pals, were still very much a nascent proposition.
Back home in Bearsville, thoughts soon turned to a new album. “What I always saw in my head was a singing band, a harmony band; harmony in the feeling of the music and the feeling of the people and harmony with the audience,” explains Felice with transcendent enthusiasm. “This new record is the essence of the harmony band coming to fruition; everybody is singing on the vocal arrangements on this record, and it’s telling a story about love, violence, regret and magic; all the things that we’ve experienced.”
Entitled ‘Long Live The Duke & The King’, the album captures the band’s essence, a ramshackle travelling circus in which different voices tell different stories. Felice and Burke remain the central architects, but it’s a more collaborative project than its predecessor. Haskins’ gospel-tinged lead vocal on ‘Hudson River’ recalls the greats of classic R&B, while ‘No Easy Way Out’ combines Stone’s vintage soulful tones with a pop-orientated country rock sound that matches Felice’s light-hearted description of the band’s new sound as “Fleetwood Black.” Elsewhere, the band’s collective voices often flourish in the ether before dramatically taking centre-stage, notably on ‘Shine On You’, while ‘Shaky’ represents the most compelling example of the band’s progression from their debut album.
However that bend in the river of life was to turn unpredictably once more, this time with catastrophic consequences. As the album reached the final stages of the mastering process, Felice experienced heart pains and a shortage of breathe. A rare visit to the doctor yielded a shocking discovery; Felice’s body had been surviving on just an eighth of the blood and oxygen supply needed to survive. The doctor told him that it was a miracle he was still alive and that one more over exertion – perhaps a gig or a flight – could be his last. The only solution was near immediate open-heart surgery.
“I had two days to rally the troops and to prepare myself for the scary, gigantic open-heart surgery,” he remembers with considerable understatement. “I didn’t want to stop the process of the record so I passed the torch to my man Bird.”
That passing of the torch saw Burke ensconced in the studio with legendary mastering engineer Bob Ludwig (recommended to Felice by his friend Conor Oberst) at the exact moment that his old friend was undergoing life-saving surgery. Video footage exists of Burke’s tears of relief at the news that Felice had pulled through: “I’m really thankful that I have people in my life that love me that much.”
“Coming out of surgery and off the morphine, I got to hear the mastered album and it really brought a tear to my eye. Unbeknownst to us and unbeknownst to me, there are prophetic lyrics like, ‘If I was dying of heartache, would you write me a song?’ [from ‘You and I’]. I wrote that before I ever knew anything about my heart. Somewhere inside my spirit I could tell there was trouble. I couldn’t pinpoint it and I needed modern medical science to fix me up.”
Now on the road to recovery, Felice’s creativity is freshly inspired by his improving health – and his work rate shows no sign of letting up. In addition to a solo tour and dates with The Duke & The King, Felice will also issue his third novel, ‘Black Jesus’ which follows the dark beauty of his prior literary creations ‘Goodbye, Amelia’ (2004) and ‘Hail Mary Full of Holes’ (2005). Published by the London-based independent To Hell With Publishing, ‘Black Jesus’ the story of a young American war veteran returned to his hometown, the fictional Galilee, New York, after being blinded in Iraq by a homemade bomb, and the unexpected love he finds with a mysterious dancer who arrives in the town, fleeing darkness and violence of a different kind.
“It gives me a new appreciation for every breath,” he concludes. “Now I have a mechanical high-tech carbon aorta that ticks. You can hear if you’re in the room with me. You can hear it tick like a pocket watch, like the crocodile who swallowed the clock [from Peter Pan]. I hear this thing ticking all day long and it reminds me to develop my magic, to do the right thing, to be in love, and that time really is ticking.”