On Friday evening, I sat in the presence of Simone Felice’s fiery brilliance. He took centre stage at The Powerhouse and with nothing but a stool, an acoustic guitar, a copy of Black Jesus and a voice of worn silk, he cast a spell that slowed time and charmed the room. From the moment Simone stepped into the small pool of light, there was a hushed intimacy, a coiled anticipation that was released as he introduced his first song, a homage to a little rag called The New York Times, which Felice referred to as no better than the shit Murdoch produces. If You Ever Get Famous was next, Felice asking prior to starting the song, ‘do you have the disease over here – Brisbane’s Got Talent?’. And then we were treated to one of the great anti-war songs of our times, One More American Song. Felice’s interest in military history shines through in many of his songs, but none more so than this one; the lyric:
John was a quiet boy in school,
Johnny had the fiery red hair,
Well he went in the army like a lot of them do,
And he gut fucked up over there
And if you see him now he pushes a shopping cart in the parking lot
And if you call him he don’t hear a thing
Call him john the priest,
John the king of bottle tops
Priest or pawn,
His war is still on,
It’s just one more American song
is both chilling and beautiful; the fate of so many young men captured in these lines.
Simone then lays his guitar down and reads a selection from the opening part of Black Jesus and it is here, you can see all the years of performing his songs and poems across the US pay off. Each line is given room to breathe, his voice incantatory as he gives life to the story of Lionel White, a soldier, blinded by a bomb blast in the deserts of Iraq, who returns home with the name Black Jesus and a ballerina turned stripper, who takes her name Gloria from the Laura Brannigan song. He only gives us a short snippet, but everyone in the room is leaning forward, hungry for more.
And he gives it to us in the form of the gorgeous, Don’t Wake the Scarecrow, a song written about a wild love affair with a prostitute. Felice’s lyric is breathtaking:
In that cold room
Your breath would twist just like ghosts do
You said, “Call me Dorothy in red shoes”
And the bed moved
The bed moved
The bed moved
Tracy, don’t you wake that scarecrow tonight
Well, the man would come in
It’s hard living right giving head when
The sad days of winter have set in
And the medicine for an addict is heroin
I’d find you there in the bath
We’d cook up your shit in a tin can
And you started calling me Tin Man
And we started making plans to begin again
and like many of his songs, it is one of stark beauty.
This is followed by a set highlight for me, Your Belly In My Arms. As an expectant father, this took on a greater poignancy, and it was wonderful to be able to thank Simone after the show for this song and talk about the joys of fatherhood; how music is innately in every child. He then plays a song from his forthcoming solo album, telling the crowd excitedly that his brothers play on the album, stopping occasionally to let us know where James lays down a fine piano line and how his friends from Mumford & Sons sing harmony, before returning to Black Jesus for a second reading.
And this time he tells us he is cutting straight to the part where ‘they hump’ and with a smile recollects how a woman in Sydney called out, ‘we call it rooting.’ He gyrates for a moment atop his stool and then launches into the text, embodying the fever of every word. The audience is leaning in, and bursts into applause as Felice lays down the book and wonders aloud what he should play next. I call out for Shaky and someone else calls out for Springsteen’s classic, Atlantic City. He responds with ‘Shit…’ but before you know it, the guitar is up and he is tearing through Shaky, squeezing everything out of the line, ‘come on and shake that country ass’. Not a beat is missed as Shaky ends and Atlantic City begins and what a version it is… Felice somehow managing to take the lines, ‘We’re going out where the sands turnin’ to gold / put on your stockings baby, ’cause the night’s getting cold’ into a repetitive mantra that gives the song a completely new energy. And as the guitar is laid to rest for the night and the audience is baying for more, Simone is still singing, walking happily out the front door of the venue into the foyer where he waits, eager for a chat, smiling in the knowledge that he has left nothing behind on stage tonight.
For those who couldn’t be there and for those eager for more, here’s a couple of links well worth checking out. First up here’s a link to a complete concert of Simone playing solo at City Winery in New York City and here’s a recent interview Simone did on ABC Radio to promote his first Australian tour and his new novel, Black Jesus.