The last time I saw Simone Felice anywhere near a London stage, he was hanging above it, wild-eyed and shirtless, from a monitor in the ceiling of the 100 Club, from which precarious position he was leading a boisterous crowd through a rowdy version of a song called “Ruby Mae” from the recently-released new album by The Felice Brothers, who were at the time roaring towards the climax of a typically rambunctious show.
Simone, as you may know, has subsequently vacated the drum stool with that band and is currently on extended sabbatical with his new outfit, The Duke & The King, a collaboration with Robert “Chicken” Burke, a long-time friend and, at some point in what sounds like a colourful career, a cohort of George Clinton, and kin in those circumstances, you’d have to imagine, to a certain amount of lunacy.
I am expecting a rather more sedate performance tonight from Simone. The Duke & The King’s debut album, the exquisite Nothing Gold Can Stay, released next month and already one of my favourite albums of the year, is for instance by and large more quietly-wrought than his last outing with The Felice Brothers on the often spectacularly raw Yonder Stands The Clock. Bush Hall, with its chandeliers and gilt and air of fading, almost crumbling grandeur seems also an appropriate setting for the album’s often lush mix of dreamy Topanga ballads, country soul and gospel.
I am anticipating, then, as I say, an evening of decorous music, all due decorum observed. This quite laughable notion lasts about five minutes or so – or at least until an initially nervously-delivered version of The Felice Brothers’ “Don’t Wake The Scarecrow” seems to die away only to rear up for an unexpectedly fearsome coda, and Simone is suddenly doing drop-kicks off the rim of the bass drum, for all the world like Joe Strummer making the same moves with The 101’ers, many years ago at the Nashville Rooms.
Burke meanwhile is hammering the drums like he’s been taking lessons for years from Charlie Watts or Levon Helm, and the rest of the band –two guitarists, one on occasional keyboards, bassist and a percussionist who also weighs in with amazing gospel vocals – is making a hellish racket.
Things calm down momentarily with a lovely version of “Water Spider” from Nothing Gold Can Stay (sample lyric: “Jesus walked on water, but so did Marvin Gaye”), which is prefaced by a declamatory introduction from Simone that finds an inspirational link between Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Keith Richards.
Simone is on drums for the next number, also from Nothing Gold Can Stay, which turns out to be “Suzanne”, a funky jam that hints at Little Feat, sung with soulful gusto by Burke, who looks like the kind of tobacco-chewing hard-case who in a certain kind of movie would be found selling guns to Harry Dean Stanton from the trunk of a battered Chevvy Impala in the parking lot of a Motel 6 somewhere on the outside of a town with a name no one can remember. “TAKE IT!” Burke shouts suddenly at one of the guitarists, who does, sensationally, a torrent of noise forthcoming. “Sounds pretty, don’t he?” Burke grins, and he does.
Simone is back in front of the microphone for a scary “The Devil Is Real”, coming on in its introduction like Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, all hell-fire and damnation and righteous testifying, evoking angels and demons and ending with the wrathful holler: “Pharoah! Pharoah! My girlfriend is dead.” Two more numbers from Nothing Gold Can Stay quickly follow – “Union Street” and “Lose Myself”, Simone manfully trying to get the crowd to sing along on the latter to a song they haven’t heard and not giving up before they do.
A barnstorming “T For Texas”, as covered on The Felice Brothers’ Tonight At The Arizona, prefaces a wonderful four-song run that includes versions of “The Morning I Got To Hell” from the new album, two outstanding Felice Brothers songs, “Your Belly In My Arms” and “Mercy”, which is tender until such time as it seems to explode, and ends with the achingly beautiful “”One More American Song”, from NGCS, which as much as The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio” is reminiscent of some Paul Simon classic.
The night ends with a rousing “Radio Song”, another Felice Brothers gem, and an unexpected but entirely welcome version of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”, Simone clearly relishing the spotlight to the extent that I was sure he’d only leave the stage at gun-point, and then reluctantly.
This was only the second show The Duke & The King have played, and at times it showed, especially during a sometimes tentative first 15 minutes. Give them a couple of months on the road, touring hard, and these people are going to be frighteningly good.