Saturday, August 29, 2009

THe Duke and the King at the Iota Review

Words by: Donald Lusk | Images by: Avalon Peacock/

The Duke and the King :: 08.16.09 :: Iota Café :: Arlington, VA

The Duke & The King
This past winter, Felice Brothers drummer/songwriter Simone Felice and his good friend Robert "Chicken" Burke holed themselves up in a cabin in the Catskills region to work on some songs. With shimmering harmonies and a cracked country-soul core, their CD Nothing Gold Can Stay arrived to universal critical acclaim in early August. They set out on a two-week tour of the East Coast, and I was lucky to catch one of the first shows in Philadelphia at the First Unitarian Church. I needed more than that though, so I was pleased to see that the tour wound down somewhat nearby in Arlington, VA.

The Duke & The King are comprised of Simone Felice, of The Felice Brothers, in the lead role as frontman and guitarist. Burke, The King, comes by way of Sweet Honey in the Rock, doubles on bass and drums. Nowell Haskins (The Deacon) is the main drummer (although on any given song they each could play someone else's instrument) and a sultry violinist by the name of Simi rounds out the quartet. One might be surprised by the lack of Felice-like rowdiness, but the same warmth and camaraderie associated with the Brothers clearly is the order of the day here as well.

Iota is a small restaurant/bar in the middle of Arlington, and felt homey as the crowd began to form. The Duke & The King made their way to the stage, and after brief hellos, went into "Don't Wake the Scarecrow," a Felice Brothers classic. In the Felice's hands it's a brooding postcard of a prostitute's life that builds to a slow climax. Live at Iota, it was like a work of deconstructive punk, with Simone parsing out the lyrical phrases over staccato runs of his hollow body guitar. An intense performance ended when The Deacon alone was given the song's final verse.

Simone Felice
With "The Morning I Get To Hell" from the new CD, the music became warmer. The combination of the three voices formed some beautiful peaks and valleys, almost like a hip-hop inspired Crosby, Stills and Nash. Next up was "Union Street," and again the vocals soared. On a song that goes from small town drug use to the need to have "all the houses lit up on Union Street," it's the quasi-psychedelic chorus that drives home the longing of having the whole world together again. They switched gears and left the stage entirely to Robert The King to perform "I've Been Bad." Really a fragment of a song, with three simple lines over an acoustic folk vamp, The Kings's voice shined as he detailed his regrets.

Back with the full group, Simone hits into "Water Spider," a sweet song about Harriet Tubman, amongst others. This song contains a key line when discussing these performers: "Jesus walked on water, but so did Marvin Gaye." It embodies the spirit of both the CD and performance, where they aspire to the quality of 1970s vocalizations. "Summer Morning Rain," with its hopeful take on a winter loss, benefited from beautiful lines from Simi's violin. "Radio Song," a Felice Brothers favorite with its chorus of "Please don't you ever die," got the Iota crowd singing and swaying to the groove. After a cover of Neil Young's "Helpless," the band finished up with "One More American Song." Sort of a continuation of "Union Street," it's a personal tale of longing and hopefulness amid returning damaged army boys and the likelihood that we will never all again be singing the same song in this fragmented world. Here, Simone breathes new life into the dream of everyone being "the best of friends and the music sewed us together," while lamenting, "Gasoline ain't gonna take us that way again." Passionately delivered, the group stepped off the stage and began the hug fest that dominates the end of their shows, where the bond between the performers and audience is tight.

The Duke & The King won over many converts at Iota, as well across the Northeast. They will continue to evolve into Simone's dream of a vocal soul band. The players have terrific chemistry, and the care they show for each other resonates from the stage and beyond. On their way to the U.K. currently, I can't wait for their return so I can hear one more American song.