While veteran rockers Thunder play an all out, indulgent prog rock set to the main auditorium of the Colston Hall, something quite different is underway in Hall 2. The enigmatic, and inspirational Simone Felice has brought his band to Bristol to play a selection of solo songs, Felice Brothers tunes, Duke & The King numbers and a couple of other covers.
Flanked by one of his oldest friends and Duke & The King collaborator Simi Stone – with whom he shares an undeniable onstage chemisty akin to that of Johnny Cash and June Carter; a J Mascis lookalike among others, he prances through a set of stark, emotional ballads. It takes Simone a while to warm up, launching straight into each song without so much as a cursory introduction of the title. One can only assume he’s not in a very good mood; that or he’s ill again. He looks pretty pale and tired and at times he appears completely out of it, eyes rolling to the back of his head or attempting to find a focal point in the room – if you didn’t know better, you may assume he was a typical tortured-genius, prima donna type.
Opening with ‘New York Times’ , Simone goes on to play more offerings from his most recent self-titled solo album, including ‘Hey Bobby Ray’, a slightly over-earnest ballad about a child murderer, which Felice confessed to writing to exorcise his demons; here, Simone switches from guitar to drums and this is where he seems to come to life. ‘You And I Belong’ an ode he penned for his daughter Peal when she was born – a daughter who, he reveals, saved his life. This teeters on that thin line between brutally honest and over-sentimental, in a Bono kinda way, but there’s something in Simone’s eyes, in his demeanour, which tells you he’s being 100% sincere here – so fair play to the Felice boy.
The set is quite Duke & The King heavy, which is fine – cos their last Bristol gig was a blinder. We’re talking ‘One More American Song’, ‘If You Ever Get Famous’ and ‘Union Street’. A trio of beautiful, Cat Stevens-esque ballads. There’s also a somewhat manic performance of ‘Shaky’, where Simone almost displays the emotions he’s writing about in this tale of a friend who returned from serving in Iraq with severe emotional issues. It has definite sniffs of Sinead O’Connor about it, in terms of the unpredictability of the artist coupled with their intense, compelling performance of some of the most simple, yet heart-wrenching songs you might ever hear.
‘Don’t Wake The Scarecrow’ has a beautifully placed xylophone part and is proving the highlight of the set, until Simone goes and throws in some uber-eccentric actions to accompany the lyrics (birds flying away etc). It makes for quite uncomfortable watching, though once this episode is over we’re back in business. The undisputed highlight, for me at least, was a very heartfelt rendition of the Felice Brothers’ song ‘Your Belly In My Arms’, a touching love story in which Simone croons: “Your belly in my arms, tomorrow we’ll be through these rains and gone.” Pass the tissues please.
By the set, Simone’s a changed man; grinning from ear to ear and leading the room in a mass sing-a-long to his cover of ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’, in memory of his good friend – the late, great Levon Helm (The Band), with whom he was with just weeks before he died last month. This is the second song for Levon, the first being a rousing, crowd-pleasing rendition of ‘Radio Song’. Another tear jerker.