Entertainment Music

Sunday 15 December 2019

Life and death and rock'n'roll

Things had been going so well for Simone Felice. The second album by the New Yorker's band, The Duke & The King, was being mixed and readied for release; he was in the middle of an invigorating world tour, which had included astonishing shows in Dublin and Kilkenny in May and was now winding its way around America; and his wife was about to give birth to their baby. . .

But then Simone's world came crashing down: in early June, a visit to his doctor left with him with a startling diagnosis. His body had been fuelled by just an eighth of the blood and oxygen supply needed to survive.

To fix the problem, Simone, 34, would need to undergo invasive open heart surgery.

The operation was scheduled for the very next day, giving him barely enough time to say a possible last goodbye to his friends and family -- and bandmates -- before placing his life in the hands of a cardiac surgeon.

There were complications -- and it was touch and go for a while . . . but Simone eventually pulled through. And lived to see the birth of his baby daughter, Pearl, who is now two months old.

Having made a miraculous recovery, Simone is now talking to me down a phone line from a cabin in Bearsville in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, where he is holed up with the rest of the band -- Bobbie 'Bird' Burke, The Sensational Simi Stone, and Nowell 'The Deacon' Haskins -- rehearsing for the new tour that takes in Dublin, Kilkenny, Sligo and Belfast later this month.

Simone, though, finds his victorious chess match with The Grim Reaper too raw to recount so soon after the event.

"It's really emotional for me to talk about that," says Simone. "Simi was right there and went to the hospital with my family. She has a better outlook than I do. Because I was really just all doped up, and almost died. So, Simi can probably give you a better answer to that question."

Simi is the band's extraordinarily charismatic and glamorous fiddle player and backing vocalist.

"It was really very scary but it all happened very fast," she recalls. "We were actually booked to play a show. Then Simone said: 'I have to go into the hospital tomorrow to have heart surgery or I'm gonna die'.

"So as you can imagine, we were completely taken aback. It was really emotional.

"We had just finished mixing the record. His baby was about to be born. It was pretty intense up here.

"So we went through this thing where we thought, 'Wow, we might not see him again'. He came around to the cabin to say goodbye to us. It was pretty heavy. But we were all together and we were looking after his sister. Everyone was really strong.

'At one point, his sister called me and was hysterically crying up on the mountain. We had to come up and comfort her because he had started bleeding again in the recovery room and they thought . . .

"That was the moment when I thought, 'Wow, we might not see our brother again'.

"But he made it! And I think we were all so thankful to see him still on the planet. It made what we were doing so much more important. We were so happy to be alive and to see him again. It's been a really emotional summer."

And the icing on the cake is that Simone lived to see his baby being born. "Yes, little Pearl is with us now. She is two months old and she's beautiful. It's a miracle."

The four friends in the Duke & The King say they have been strengthened as individuals and as a band in the wake of Simone's situation. When I called, they had been singing in a circle in their cabin where they recorded their new album Long Live The Duke & The King (the follow-up to their eye-catching debut Nothing Gold Can Stay) and where Simone recorded his new solo retrospective, Live From A Lonely Place just days after his surgery.

The Duke & The King have drawn comparisons with everyone from James Taylor to James Brown and the Neville Brothers (Aaron, not Gary). They've got a psychedelic soul-country-folk-rock-gospel thing going on.

After building a fanbase with a string of albums full of rootsy Americana, recorded with his siblings Ian and James as The Felice Brothers, Simone left to form The Duke & The King in 2009 as a vehicle for his own songs. An appearance on Jools Holland's BBC TV show last year raised their profile on this side of the Atlantic, as did rave reviews in UK music bible Uncut.

Bobbie 'Bird' Burke says of the new album: "Hopefully the vibration of all the love that was poured into it will make its way out to the people and they'll be inspired to do the same."

The band are looking forward to touching down on Irish soil again after the life-affirming triumph of their Kilkenny gigs during the summer. "The best compliment I got was from a woman who said she felt like she was on acid!" laughs Simi.

Bobbie agrees: "Kilkenny is such a beautiful place: the churches, the countryside is breathtaking. We went to this one pub where the food was incredible.

"They had the best brown bread. I basically wanted to marry this old woman who owned and ran the place!"

Long Live The Duke & The King and Simone Felice's Live From A Lonely Place are out now. The Duke & The King play the Academy 2, Dublin, October 19; The Set Theatre, Kilkenny, 21; Ballincar Cottages, Co Sligo, 22; Empire, Belfast, 24. nkelly@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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