It’s the fourth of July, we’re at St Giles-in-the-Fields Church, and Simone Felice is obviously enthralled and inspired by the atmosphere of the church and its grand beauty. So much so that towards the end of the set, he bounds off the stage to dance down the aisle, encouraging us to join in with the chorus of CSN&Y’s Helpless. “Helpless, helpless, hee-e-e-lpless”, we all sing, fortunately no complicated lyrics to remember. And it has to be said, the acoustics in this building are quite incredible.
Simone is a ball of energy, a coiled spring. Wearing a striped shirt over his wiry frame, he hunches over his guitar, opening with Splendor in the Grass. It’s a still and emotional start to a song redolent with emotion. His musicians join him after his acapella start: bass player Mountain John from Woodstock on bass and Matthew Green from Melbourne on guitar, dobro and mandolin, and occasional vocals.
Simone introduces Dawn Brady’s Son, which he wrote about a dear friend whose father killed himself, and whose mother indulged in the ‘dark arts’ to keep the family. For Hey Bobby Ray, he hops onto the drums and bashes the hell out of them with intense ferociousness.
It’s this dark intensity that is the most overwhelming aspect to Simone Felice. His songs are about living the American experience, and although New York City features in his material, it’s the blue-collar country backwoods that form the inspiration for most of his work. Men returning from war, a life seen through a haze of whisky, poverty, prostitution, heroin: these are the themes which haunt him. And yet he is awed and humbled by the beauty of humanity: the resilience of love, his three year old daughter Pearl who he tells us is the love of his life, and to whom he dedicates a song. And twice he stops to tell us how thrilled he is to be here; it’s not the random “hey you’re a beautiful audience” but a heartfelt outburst.
He’s known as a poet, writer and songwriter but he also has a more hidden talent as a dancer. At one point he’s freed from the guitar and drums and he dances while the other two play. Although I somehow doubt he’s a fan of yoga, he is incredibly supple and sinuous and shows off some serious back bends.
He shares a story about his trip to Ireland on a ‘dilapidated ferry’ – it’s the catalyst for a song, and we are treated to its debut tonight. The theme: a scumbag drug dealer. It’s one of my favourite numbers of the night, uptempo and rocky. We also get to hear another new song which he had finished in the church earlier.
Later he sings two crowd pleasers from The Felice Brothers’ first album: Don’t Wake the Scarecrow and Radio Song, and a couple of encores before he skips off down the aisle to bid us farewell. St Giles is known as The Poet’s Church, and Simone Felice more than adequately earns a place here tonight.