04 Sep Testifying with American royalty
On their last trip to the UK shores, The Duke & the King spoke to The Guardian’s James Medd. That interview ran in full in yesterdays paper.
Are they a revivalist folk-soul band or a religious cult? Either way, this charismatic three-piece are on a mission from God
On a late spring evening in west London, on stage amid the restored Edwardian splendour of Bush Hall, Simone Felice was a man possessed – as transfixing as a cult leader, testifying about Jesus, Gandhi and Elvis. This morning, just down the road in Chiswick in the kitchen of his record company boss, he seems a different man.
Not completely different, however. Even sipping chicken stock, the 32-year-old from the Catskills in upstate New York is charismatic – if musicians’ jokes are to be believed, a little too charismatic for a drummer. That was supposedly his job in the Felice Brothers, the Americana band he formed with his two younger siblings. His tendency to stray from behind the kit when possessed of the spirit at their gigs meant his departure from the band was, with hindsight, inevitable.
Now Felice has a new title: Duke. That is his role in his new band, the Duke & the King, the latter being 43-year-old drummer and singer Robert “Chicken” Burke. They’re joined by new recruit Nowell Haskins (“the Deacon”), a Brooklyn singer of unrevealed age whose father sang with Parliament/Funkadelic. The three call each other “brother”; they kiss, they smile, they look deep into each other’s eyes, they high-five; they cry “Amen to that!” when one of them, often standing up, makes a declaration about the band. This really does have all the hallmarks of a cult.
It began casually last winter when, on a break from the day job, Felice got together with Burke, veteran of several funk and soul bands “you’ll never have heard of”, in his home recording studio. By the end of the winter, they had completed Nothing Gold Can Stay, a beautiful record that takes Felice’s evocative, tender lyrics, his soft, rich voice and simple folk melodies, and gives them an undertone of gospel fervour and the deep-burning passion of soul.
The pair bonded over music, but also over pain. Burke brought his love troubles, and for Felice it coincided with the stillbirth of his first child. “Her name was Belle, B-e-l-l-e,” he says. “When I met her I saw my own face in her face and it blew my mind. It really changed my life and it was like, ‘Life is too short not to listen to the voice in your head. I need to do what my heart tells me.'”
“The Duke & the King is friendship,” says Burke, “but it’s also a united spirit and focus, about what moves our hearts and what moves other people’s hearts.” It’s also a kind of folk music, he says, but one that embraces Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. “Folk artists as well, but somehow if it was brown it wasn’t called folk,” he says, rousing Haskins to declare, “Marvin Gaye was as folk as it gets.” Felice gives a heartfelt “Amen,” then Burke is on his feet proclaiming: “If it’s coming out of the gut of America and it’s real, you better believe that’s folk music.” Haskins nods his assent.
“We’re building a new little church brick by brick and board by board,” Felice says. “That’s what I always wanted to do with the Felice Brothers: have a space where, when people come to the show, they feel like a part of it and they’re in a little congregation. They can feel free to jump up onstage and sing with us, to testify and to really shake loose the shackles of whatever is holding them down.”
So they’re a travelling show – troubadours, then, I suggest. Felice is taken with this: “Bringing the songs to the people? Is that what you mean? Fuckin’ A – that’s what we’re doing!” A round of high fives is exchanged between the three. Then he’s serious again. “People singing songs have saved my life,” he says softly. “That was my psychologist and my Prozac. And I’m just trying to do the same for other people.”
– James Medd.