Penny Black Music – Duke & The King at the Scala

Coming just a couple of months after their barnstorming set supporting Willard Grant Conspiracy at the Garage, this was an opportunity for the exceptional Duke and the King to show they can headline. I was slightly surprised the gig was not sold out; you just expect everyone else in the world to share your own perfect taste in music, yet this is rarely the case. But a healthy crowd, most of whom seemed to have word perfect knowledge of the band’s nearly flawless debut, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay,’ went home deliriously happy that they had seen the blossoming of a rare, complex and sincerely honest talent.

Lead singer Simone Felice, all bones and sinews, looks a serious proposition when he launches into ‘If You Ever Get Famous’, a wistful song about what’s important in life. Simone’s wife, it has been well documented, lost a child during birth and he has spoken of the life changing effect this had. While not alluded to explicitly, there is sense of loss pervading the album and the live show. Not that this music is anything but utterly joyous and life affirming, but that it is written by a grown up who has been through something gives his words and music gravity.

Towards the end of the show the band marvelously cover Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ and in that perpetual struggle of the music critic to find artists similar to the one you are writing about, Young is one I keep coming back to. From the breadth of influences to the clarity and simplicity of the words; from their dismay at wars around us to the sadness for innocence lost, the comparison is irresistible.

The full band is a multi-talented, multi-tasking crew who look like a gang of confidence tricksters from a Mark Twain (from whom the band took their name) tale of the Deep South. The entrancing, playful Simi Stone who provides searing violin and soulful harmonies is the perfect foil to the larger than life Rev. Loveday aka The Deacon (that’s his name, really and the album is full of contributors’ nicknames like the Viceroy etc) who drums, plays bass and nearly blows the roof off with his booming voice. The Duke, or maybe the King, Bobby Bird is a hirsute bassist and occasional lead singer on the most romantic song of the album, ‘Suzanne’. Combined with the stage-craft and electrifying presence of Felice, the whole effect is unstoppable.

The sincerity is disarming and something that Americans seem to be able to get away with more easily. When he bemoans terrorism and war and says all he wants to do is fall in love, you know it would feel hollow coming from a Brit. Equally, the religious fervor of their love of music is infectious and has people, who probably thought they would do such things, clapping and singing along.

There are many points when you feel you are hearing what will become classics such as the haunting ‘Union Street’ to the deceptively simple but heartbreaking ‘One More American Song’. To manage to convey not a little disappointment with the world without an iota of cynicism is quite a feat; in the latter number, Felice sings of an American soldier permanently scarred by war with a soulfulness that is universal and heartfelt.

The Duke and the King may stall here and Felice may return to the safety of his brothers’ band, or perhaps they will build on this: If the next album is as good or better than ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ and if they carry on being as engaging and infectious live as they were at the Scala they will become a very serious proposition.

www.pennyblackmusic.co.uk