Recap: Simone Felice's Free At Noon performance at World Cafe Live, 3/16/12 - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

The tragic narratives of Simone Felice’s songs are almost as remarkable as his own personal narrative. Felice was raised in the Catskills in New York, where, at the age of 12, he suffered a brain aneurysm. The aneurysm left him clinically dead for minutes, a condition which required Felice to relearn basic motor skills. According to an autobiographical essay, the area of his brain that was affected was the part associated with creativity. The hospital told Felice’s mother that he would never play music. Instead, Felice began playing his first guitar months after his trauma and went on to create critically acclaimed music—music that often revolves around tragic stories.

Early in his career, Felice played in small bands, but it wasn’t until he formed The Felice Brothers with his brother Ian in 2001 that his career took off. The Felice Brothers’ brand of earnest, upbeat folk earned them international attention and their songs were featured in several major television shows, including Skins, True Blood, and Eastbound And Down. Simone became the primary song writer and drummer for the group. Yet Felice’s musical career changed when tragedy struck again. First, he lost a child to miscarriage in the winter of 2009. Heartbroken, he retreated from The Felice Brothers and holed up in a mountain cabin to write. The result was Nothing Gold Can Stay, the debut album of what would be his next band, The Duke & The King. Felice released another album in 2010 with The Duke & The King, but while on tour that summer, he collapsed in his hotel room. Felice went on with the show that night, flew home the next day and went to the hospital where he learned that he required emergency open-heart surgery. His heart had developed a build-up of calcium that reduced it to pumping 8% of what it should have been. Facing his second brush with death, Felice kissed his eigh-month pregnant wife, uncertain if he’d survive the surgery.

Felice survived the operation and became the father of a healthy baby girl a month later. The next two years were hardly quiet, despite his decision to put The Duke & The King to rest. Besides raising his first child, Felice kept up his writing. In August 2011, his first novel, Black Jesus, was published. He also wrote and recorded the tracks that would become his self-titled solo album, due out this April. The album is, perhaps not surprisingly, a heavy affair. Though the single “You and I Belong,” is a toe tapper, Felice’s performance of the new album this afternoon suggested that there won’t be many others. Instead, the album is packed with stories, and most of them are tragedies.

The album works live because Felice is a master storyteller. Backed by Simi Stone on violin, tambourine and vocals, and Tommy Goss on drums, Felice’s performance on acoustic guitar was nearly theatrical. He was completely absorbed in each song he sang, eyes rolling, head swaying, careening off of his chair. He wove rich narratives: one about a marine he knew in “One More American Song,” another about a young Native American girl and the boy who killed her in “Hey Bobby Ray,” and another about a prostitute with golden hair named Tracy in “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow.” Felice interspersed his set with stories about his life, recalling his heart surgery, describing his grandparents, and sharing the stories that haunted him when he was growing up. It’s hardly surprising that a singer-songwriter-turned-novelist with two near-death experiences would have a propensity to fit his life experiences into a greater narrative arch, but with a story to prelude each of the narrative songs, the show managed to be even more story-oriented than the album.

Even Felice’s most upbeat song in the set, “Radio Song,” (which is an old The Felice Brothers tune) croons “Please don’t you ever die/ you ever die/ you ever die” in the chorus. This song becomes more poignant when one reads the public letter that Felice addressed to his “beloved friends” after the first time he played “Radio Song” post-op with The Felice Brothers at the Clearwater festival. The entire audience sang back “please don’t you ever die.” It was a powerful moment for Felice. Another powerful, but subtler moment came when Felice closed with “a song [his] daddy used to sing that [he’s] been singing since [his] heart surgery.” In a full-circle moment that only a novelist would close on, he started singing, “Mamma take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore.” There was to be a quiet, emphatic cheer from the audience as if to say, “‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’—of course.” –Naomi Shavin

Set List:

1. New York Times
2. Charade
3. Radio Song
4. Hey Bobby Ray
5. If You Ever Get Famous
6. You & I Belong
7. Courtney Love
8. One More American Song

1. Don’t Wake the Scarecrow
2. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

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