What is it about Simone Felice and hushed and sacred places that make your voice drop to a whisper as soon as you walk into them?
A month ago, in Woodstock, where I was interviewing The Duke & The King, Simone took me to the Church Of The Holy Transfiguration Of Christ, way up there on top of Mead Mountain, where it had been since 1891, and a favourite retreat of Simone’s when he was growing up.
Tonight, he’s at St Pancras Old Church, which to the extent that it’s apparently one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England is clearly not flippantly named. It’s a fabulous setting for the last date of his recent UK solo tour, candles flickering behind him, shadows looming around an altar, darkness clinging to high vaulted spaces, murmuring ancient voices, if you’re listening, in the joists, eaves and roof beams, a certain hallowed spookiness about the premises, from top to bottom.
“Wow,” Simone says, looking around him as he settles down in a high back chair, the kind of thing you might find in the parlour of a witch. “There are ghosts in here,” he goes on, nodding knowingly, people in the front rows looking around now, too, trying to see what he can see or thinks he can, the congregation, for that’s what we as much as anything are, quite rapt, more than a little spellbound. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear a moaning wind about now, followed by some creaking of timbers untold ages old, a beckoning voice, the sort of thing, generally, the kind of vague creepiness, in other words, that will eventually freak you out if you dwell overlong on it.
Simone gets a lot of laughs from all this all night, especially when a technical hitch during a lovely version of “Summer Morning Rain” makes it sound like one of his monitors is speaking to him and he does an extended and very funny riff on The Exorcist, which people around me laugh heartily at even as they seem at the same time a tad unsettled, which makes it even funnier. Even Simone jumps, though, when, later on in the proceedings he’s reading an extract from his new novel, Black Jesus, out early next year (the publishers are a company, he takes some relish in mentioning, are called To Hell).
“What happened to the 20th century?” he reads in declamatory fashion from the pages of his manuscript, and on queue, a clock begins to chime ominously at the top of the hour, a droll knelling reply that inspires an hilarious version of “In The Air Tonight”, the audience, surprisingly word-perfect, joining keenly in.
The songs Simone sings elsewhere are from more predictable sources, principally from the repertoire of The Felice Brothers (“Don’t Wake The Scarecrow”, “Radio Song”, “Your Belly In My Arms”, “The Devil Is Real”, “Mercy”) and The Duke & The King (“If You Ever Get famous”, “One More American Song”, “The Morning I Get To Hell”, “Union Street”, all from last year’s Nothing Gold Can Stay album; “Gloria” and “Shaky” from their forthcoming second album, Long Live The Duke & The King).
There are some inspired covers, too, including a fine version of Tom Waits’ “Old 55” and a spectacular take on Neil Young’s “Helpless”, with the congregation now a choir and someone in the audience down front who I can’t see testifying like Aretha – “London, you got soul!” Simone yells, laughing, head flung back like a revivalist preacher, the crowd taking over entirely on the chorus, as Simone on his knees facing them starts in on a bit of “Amazing Grace”, before returning to the final verse and chorus of “Helpless”, his voice rising from hush to howl, a cresting moment. There’s also a new song, “The New York Times”, among the best things he’s written.
He comes back for four encores – the two songs from the new Duke & The King album, a beautiful version of “Waterspider” from their debut and, finally, a gorgeous take on another Neil Young favourite, “Long May You Run”, with some cool lap steel from Mat Boulter, hi-jacked by Simone for these solo shows from UK Americana band The Lucky Strikes.
Simone will be back in October with the full Duke & The King line-up. No one who was here tonight will want to miss them.