Simone Felice’s Happy Days
It’s been eight months of traversing the globe for musician Simone Felice, all in support of his eponymous, moody folk debut album. Even so, the singer-songwriter-author and Catskills resident says he’ll approach his December 7 performance at Helsinki Hudson, the first of two back in home territory, “like it’s my last night on Earth.” (The second show will be at the historic Infinity Hall in Norfolk on December 27.)
He’s not mincing words. Felice is one lucky man. The 36-year-old has danced with death not just once, but twice. After a brain aneurysm at age 12 rendered him clinically deceased for several minutes, he made a miraculous recovery, growing to manhood in Palenville, NY, and, understandably, burning the candle at both ends. In his early twenties he published two novellas and a volume of poetry, creating a stir at Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Café. In 2006, he and brothers, Ian and James, formed the celebrated, rollicking roots-rock quintet The Felice Brothers, touring the world and tearing up stages at large musical gatherings such as Bonnaroo , Mountain Jam, and the Newport Folk Festival. Perhaps owing to his early brush with death, Simone’s own compositions remain some of The Felice Brothers’ darkest, yet celebratory songs. He left amicably in 2009, released two CDs as half of The Duke & The King, and, in 2010, Felice almost died again from a congenital heart ailment.
“I have a mechanical valve in my heart,” he explains. After emergency surgery, he got what he calls a “carbon replacement” for his aorta. “I can hear it ticking even now as we speak. Always reminding me I’m here on shore leave.” He laughs. “Our last hour’s not revealed. So I try to be thankful every day.” Within two weeks of his operation, he was back onstage with his brothers at Pete Seeger’s annual Clearwater Festival in Croton Point, NY. The next month his daughter, Pearl, was born. Soon thereafter, he began work on Simone Felice.
To capture the rough-hewn sounds in his head, Felice recorded in his barn attic, a church, and the rural Greene County school auditorium where he spent his “juvenile delinquent” years. For opening track “Hey Bobby Ray,” he brought in Catskill High School’s all-girl choir the Trebleaires, casting them as a “ghost chorus” offering hope to the song’s doomed protagonist. As with his shadow-inspired Felice Brothers material, he offers glimpses of the “other side” alongside a shimmering thread of optimism. Other Simone Felice guests include current neo-folk superstars Mumford & Sons – with whom he toured this year – and his faithful brothers.
Felice says he’ll bring his core band of violinist-vocalist Simi Stone and upright bassist John Luther to Helsinki Hudson, and, as this is something of a hometown gig, “special guests” are likely to appear. “Hudson was one of the first towns my brothers and I started busking in,” Felice says, relaxing after raking leaves with Pearl. “That’s how The Felice Brothers started out. We played in the streets of Hudson, then we took the train to New York City, played in the subway. This is my first time headlining in Hudson, so it’s like a full circle from where I started out.”
He’s amazed at the revitalization of the town. “In the 80s, when I was in school, you wouldn’t ever go to Hudson, because there was a stabbing or a shooting almost every day. It was like Bed Stuy.”
The December 7 and 27 gigs will be “a bookend” to a remarkable year for Felice; in addition to his debut album, his first novel, Black Jesus, was published (“Lyrical, spare, and resonant.” says Publishers Weekly). When asked to name a highlight of 2012, he cites his participation in Mumford & Sons’ “Gentlemen of the Road” summer festival in Portland, Maine: “They asked me to come up and sing The Band’s “The Weight” in front of 15,000 people. After that, I was feeling really high from the music and I went and jumped in the ocean by myself. I looked at the moon and I felt like, ‘Life is all right.’ Every day I pinch myself and say ‘Wow, this is how I make a living and take care of my baby. I get to live my dream and be a poet and a songwriter.’ I couldn’t ask for more than that. It’s a real blessing.” —Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren