critic’s pick 330: jack bruce, ‘silver rails’ and ginger baker, ‘why?’

jack bruceFor a surprisingly brief period in the late ‘60s, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were the rhythm section for the juggernaut trio Cream. Since then, their respective musical careers have sped past the half-century mark to appropriate numerous shades of jazz and worldbeat music. Still, that sliver of time when the two shook the world with the volcanic blues psychedelia of Cream – a sound that cemented the stardom of the trio’s other member, Eric Clapton – will forever tower over the solo music of Bruce and Baker.

While two recent recordings – Bruce’s first in 10 years, Baker’s newest in 14 – make such comparisons fruitless, ghosts from the past, albeit unexpected ones, are at work.

Bruce, 70, possesses a still-hearty vocal tenor that references his Cream legacy. You hear it within the thick, pervasive melody of Hidden Cities and the rumbling bass groove that undercuts Rusty Lady with longtime pal Robin Trower handling guitar duties. Similarly, Bruce’s longtime lyricist Pete Brown (their alliance stems back to the Cream years) contributes to seven of Silver Rails’ 10 tunes.

But Bruce is no nostalgist. If Cream fans some of the flames on Silver Rails, Spectrum Road, the all-star fusion combo the bassist recorded with in 2o12, sets the house on fire. That group’s keyboardist, John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) is all over Silver Rails. He enhances the light dub-style framework of Candlelight while Spectrum Road drummer Cindy Blackman Santana drives the ragged, rockish No Surrender.

Best of all, the new album’s blend of retro vocabulary, fresh instrumental fire and vocal color sounds surprisingly vigorous. It makes this rock elder sound vital and, at times, even youthful.

Ginger-Baker-WhyBaker, 74, has zero interest in Cream or in rock ‘n’ roll on Why? The scare-the-children portrait that serves as album cover art practically serves as a No Trespassing sign for any would- be rock archivist. Instead, Baker follows the jazz and African roots sounds that have stood as his prime post-Cream preferences.

The repertoire takes few chances. Ain Temouchant was first featured on one of Baker’s finest jazz records, 1994’s Going Back Home (with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden) while the traditional Nigerian tune Aiko Biaye is revisited from 1970s’s Ginger Baker’s Air Force. But on Why? they are retooled into lean, spacious, unhurried rhythmic exercises with one time James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.

Throughout the album, Ellis plays off of Baker’s largely steadfast fills in a way that recalls the more meditative late ‘60s records of sax giant Pharaoh Sanders. But percussionist Abass Dodoo often lights a greater fire under Baker, as shown during their extended drum duet on Aiko Biaye.

Mostly, though, Why? serves as a set of loose, unvarnished jazz jaunts with the Cream decidedly skimmed off.

a banner year for lee brice

lee brice

lee brice.

What’s better than playing sold-out arenas and stadiums all year on a bill with one of country music’s hottest headliners? In the case of Lee Brice, it would be playing a sold-out festival where he is, in essence, the headliner.

Admittedly, this weekend’s sold out Red, White and Boom festival, as has been the case in years past, is composed of artists of varying degrees of familiarity. All are in the process of establishing or fortifying their careers. Brice sits comfortably in the latter category.

A South Carolina native who has written songs for such Nashville notables as Jason Aldean, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton and Kenny Chesney, he established his own string of hits over the past five years. The newest, I Don’t Dance, is the title song of an album that is still two months away from release.Then there is the little matter of Brice’s current touring situation. Since January, he has been serving as one of two opening acts on a tour with country sensation Luke Bryan (fellow Red, White & Boom performer Cole Swindell is the other). So mark 2014 as a pretty decent year for Brice.

“Things are definitely at their highest point,” Brice, 35, said Tuesday by phone from his home in Nashville. “We’ve been doing this a long time and started from nothing but a van driving all over the country, so it’s nice to be able to tour like Luke. Now, Luke is a good buddy, but Luke is also the biggest thing in country music right now. It’s a privilege to be out there. I mean, all of his fans are rabid, so I’m enjoying this very much.”

When Brice played with Bryan at Rupp Arena in February, his manner of connecting to the audience was as casual as it was confident. Sure, the packed house thrilled to hits like I Drive Your Truck (which, despite the title, is actually a requiem for a friend) and A Woman Like You. But it was the singer’s direct and completely non-pandering treatment of his crowd that distinguished the performance.

“I grew up singing in church and my mama grew up singing in church, so I watched her for a lot of years soloing on Sunday mornings,” Brice said. “She was so spiritual. For her, it was all about communicating the song and communicating that moment. Sometimes, if she needed to not sing and just speak the words, she would, even though she was an amazing singer and still is an amazing singer. I watched that my whole life. She would connect with people on a different level just by getting up there and singing a song.

“I love writing music and I love producing records and I love performing. But one of the most special things is that moment of connection, like trying to look somebody in the eye all the way in the very, very back. I saw Garth Brooks when I was 17 years old. I was way up in the top of the stands and felt like he was talking to me. At that moment was when I knew I wanted to do this. That was what I was trying to follow.”

To that end, I Don’t Dance will serve as the next part of that connection. The album, which Brice produced and wrote much of the material for, is due out Sept. 9. But the title song — which Brice wrote for his and wife Sara Reeveley’s wedding — is burning up country airwaves this summer.

“When I wrote that, I thought, ‘This is the beginning of this record.’ I started from that moment of production in building each track and taking my time. That was the direction I wanted to go for each and every song, to find out how they needed to be made and not have some big theme over the whole record.

I Don’t Dance also connected my personal life with my career. But that song was just the special thing that got this project started. It was the very beginning.”

Lee Brice performs July 5 as part of the two-day Red, White and Boom festival at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The entire event is sold out.

a coal miner’s daughter heads home

angaleena presley

angaleena presley.

Growing up a true coal miner’s daughter in the Martin County community of Beauty, Angaleena Presley kept her eyes and ears open. Sure, there was music to take in. But what was within that music — the stories and the lyrical means she discovered of communicating them — fascinated her most.

“When I was growing up, I always felt like I was watching rather than being part of things. I was observing everything — from the smallest thing, like watching my mom break beans, to the big things, like my dad getting laid off from the mines,” said Presley, who is part of this weekend’s Red, White and Boom lineup. “Some part of me knew I was a storyteller, and that’s a big part of our culture: oral history.

“Really the only way a lot of our culture has survived has been through oral history. For some reason, I just got picked to be that person from my neck of the woods that was supposed to go out and spread the word, and hopefully empower people through our little stories of struggle and joy and sorrow and happiness. Whatever people could draw from those stories, it was just my job to tell them. I always knew that. And I’ll be telling them probably on every record I make.”

Having moved to Nashville 12 years ago, Presley connected with a publishing company and went in search of a country sound that proved elusive.

“When I first moved to Nashville, I was very green. I was right off the front porch in Kentucky,” said Presley, 37, who attended Eastern Kentucky University and briefly lived in Lexington. “I had no idea how anything worked. The publishing company that I was fortunate enough to find really fostered that. But when it came time to do demos of my songs, we never really found the right sound. Partly out of frustration and partly out of my own artistic battle that was going on in my head, I said, ‘Let’s forget it. I want to figure out what it is on my own.’”

Luckily, one country superstar who caught a listen to Presley’s work and liked what she heard was Miranda Lambert. Lambert invited Presley to join her and Ashley Monroe in a sideline vocal trio called Pistol Annies. Presley always wanted a solo career. But with Pistol Annies’ quick popularity, she developed something aspiring songwriters could only dream of before releasing a debut solo record: a fan base.

“One of the reasons I joined Pistol Annies was to get my own career off the ground,” Presley said. “I was in a town where there was a formula, but the formula didn’t fit what I was doing. I just couldn’t get any traction. Miranda didn’t care about the formula, either. She slipped through the cracks and became successful at doing honest, good music. I feel like now with bands like Pistol Annies and people like Kacey Musgraves and Miranda, I think the tables are finally starting to turn. Now I feel the formula is catching up with me.”

Presley views her debut album — American Middle Class, due out in October — as strongly autobiographical (“It’s the story of my life up to the point where I joined Pistol Annies,” she says). She sidetracked standard practice in the recording industry by co-producing the record with her husband, Jordan Powell. Still, there is plenty of high-profile harmony help on the record: Eastern Kentucky country star Patty Loveless and Emily Saliers, one-half of Indigo Girls (Presley will be touring with the pop-folk duo in August and September).

“Hanging out with Patty was like going to stay with one of my aunts or cousins. She is so much like home to me,” Presley said. “At one point she was making greens, soup beans and corn bread and singing this gospel song to herself in the kitchen as she was cooking. “We just connected in this Kentucky place that I don’t feel like a lot of people understand unless you have been there. And she is a coal miner’s daughter. We’re few and far between, so when we find each other, we just really connect. We know what that life was like and how many stories that go with it.”

Angaleena Presley performs July 5 as part of the two-day Red, White and Boom festival at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.

in performance: john hiatt and the combo/therobert cray band

john hiatt

john hiatt.

Their respective careers were set in motion decades ago, so it’s understandable that a double-bill performance by John Hiatt and Robert Cray would carry equal levels of expectation and nostalgia. But last night at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, both artists scored creative high points with either recent material or hearty reworkings of chestnut favorites.

The former attribute shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given how prolific both have been of late. Bluesman Cray has released seven albums of new music (excluding several fine concert recordings) since 1999. Veteran songsmith Hiatt has issued nine. He even seemed bemused last night by the fact. “Somehow,” he remarked, “they still let us makes records.”

Hiatt and his longrunning band The Combo – fortified by Louisiana drummer Kenneth Blevins, who has been playing with Hiatt on and off since his late ‘80s days with The Goners, and longtime Patty Griffin guitarist Doug Lancio – opened an 80 minute set by leaping head first into the deep pocket groove of My Business. Pulled from 2012’s Mystic Pinball album, the tune’s slyly lyrical sensibility, swampy rhythmic stride and plentiful, efficient guitar hooks defined the electric state of Hiatt’s current music. Such a fact was underscored by the coarse stride of Wind Don’t Have to Hurry (with Lancio adding brittle accents of banjo) from the forthcoming Terms of My Surrender. But the new record’s title tune veered off into the sort of light, antique jazz/minstrel plain Bob Dylan began exploring on Love & Theft.

There were oldies galore, too. The standout there was a retooled Cry Love that was set to an acoustic jamboree setting with Lancio taking the wheel on mandolin.

robert cray

robert cray.

Similarly, Cray’s performance was by no means anchored to the past. His new In My Soul bends generously to the ‘60s style pop, soul and R&B inspirations that have always been as prevalent in Cray’ music – especially in the spotless tone of his singing – as the obvious blues callings. As such, the guitarist devoted six songs during his 70 minute opening set to the album.

Some were coolly paced ballads fashioned as vehicles for the expert phrasing of Cray’s vocals. Into that column fell Fine Yesterday, a slice of summery but bittersweet Philly-style soul. What Would You Say later emphasized his ultra clean but never antiseptic guitarwork while the Richard Cousins instrumental Hip Tight Onions shot the spotlight over to keyboardist Dover Weinberg for a finger-popping, Booker T-flavored groove. Topping all of the new material, though, was Deep in My Soul, a desperate, anthemic affirmation where Cray sailed effortlessly back into the blues during a gorgeous coda solo.

The latter also held true for one of Cray’s breakthrough hits, Because of Me, which indulged in a leisurely but solemn slow fade solo that brought the quiet intensity of blues giant Otis Rush to mind.

Sadly, there were several inebriates in the Cincy crowd that used such a moment of chilled beauty to whoop, holler and needlessly call attention to themselves. Booze and social decorum – never shall they meet.

critic’s pick 329: bobby hutcherson, david sanborn and joey defrancesco, ‘enjoy the view’ and bobby hutcherson, ‘total eclipse’

enjoy the viewThe recordings vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson cut for Blue Note play out like a jazz encyclopedia. He relished the hard bop of the label’s ‘50s and ‘60s heyday but eventually experimented with post-bop, free-jazz and, increasingly, contemporary grooves of the late ‘60s up through 1977 when he defected from the label.

This summer, Hutcherson is back with Blue Note for recordings representing two different eras. The first is Enjoy the View, a new collaborative record cut with saxophone star David Sanborn and organist/trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco with strong support from drummer Billy Hart. The other is a vinyl-only reissue of the 1968 album Total Eclipse made at the height of Hutcherson’s post-bop period.

The near-simultaneous release of both recordings is part of a celebration honoring the Blue Note’s 75th anniversary. That makes the label two years older than Hutcherson himself.

Hutcherson has formed a number of strong saxophone alliances through the years. While the one with Sanborn is new, the two create a cool, immediate simpatico over the loose groove Hart designs on Delia (a Sanborn composition from 2003). The relationship between the vibraphonist and DeFrancesco is equally tasteful (the two were bandmates for roughly a decade), as evident by the pair’s calm, conversational turns on Don Is, a new DeFrancesco tune named after current Blue Note chieftain Don Was.

It should be noted that Sanborn, who has long ties to the smooth jazz world, checks his slicker profile at the door on Enjoy the View. For Hey Harold, a 1971 tune Hutcherson initially cut with tenor sax great Harold Land, Sanborn’s playing reflects a soulful immediacy that has always been on display in performance but appears less frequently in his recorded work.

total eclipseThe late Land lives again on the reissue of Total Eclipse. The recording was the first collaboration between the saxophonist and Hutcherson, who was in a period of considerable artistic transition at the time of these sessions.

While the opening Herzog is full of the swift, agile bop that defined his classic albums from earlier in the decade, the title tune is a luxurious but substantial post-bop work distinguished by two elegant solos presented one after the other by Land and Hutcherson with a young Chick Corea offering a third that is full of stoic grace.

Pompian, which places Land on flute and Hutcherson briefly on marimba, flirts with waltz patterns and subsequent dissonance but also hints at the more modern turns and exchanges the two would embark on in the future (especially on 1970’s exquisite San Francisco, a record that screams for a reissue).

Here, though, Total Eclipse becomes a beautiful though restless portrait of a young jazz spirit that shines with mature contentment on Enjoy the View.

in performance: the holmes brothers/chatham county line

chatham county line

chatham county line: chandler holt, greg readling, dave wilson and john teer.

One of the major delights derived from sitting in on a live taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio comes when the program presents two acts, seemingly removed from each other as well as from the stereotypes that dog their respective genres, performing in peak but unassuming form.

Such was the case with a charming bill earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre that featured The Holmes Brothers, a group generically labeled as a blues band despite obvious its reverence for vintage soul, gospel and juke joint rock ‘n’ roll, and Chatham County Line, a quartet that borrows generously from bluegrass instrumentation but operates largely as a folk group.

holmes

the holmes brothers: sherman holmes, wendell holmes and popsy dixon.

The Holmes Brothers – real life siblings Wendell (on guitar and keyboards) and Sherman (bass) with longtime pal Popsy Dixon (drums) – remain ageless wonders. All three are in their ‘70s and revealed a natural affection for groove, soul and harmony. The three shifted vocals on four tunes from their new Brotherhood album, from Sherman’s rustic tenor lead on the lean blues excursion Drivin’ in the Drivin’ Rain to Wendell’s playful piano stride on the gospel-esque Stayed at the Party to Popsy’s syncopated percussion and low vocal pleading on Soldier of Love.

But the killer was a classic – a version of Amazing Grace led by judicious vocal whoops from Wendell and an otherworldly falsetto finale from Popsy that translated into serious testifying.

Chatham County Line, which has issued a decade’s worth of progressively minded string band music on the Yep Roc label, found a lot to like within bluegrass tradition without outwardly sounding like a bluegrass band. Singer Dave Wilson and mandolinist John Teer dressed songs from the band’s recent Tightrope album – specifically, the lightly driven Should Have Known and the spry jamboree tune Tightrope of Love – with elastic harmonies, while Wilson’s guitarwork on The Traveler possessed a delicate, autoharp-ish quality.

But this wasn’t a retro minded troupe. Instead, the band deemphasized bluegrass’ fondness of speed and soloing in favor of strong ensemble instrumentation anchored by bassist Greg Readling and story songs, like the cross-generational war requiem Hawk, that possessed the narrative detail of a fine folk ensemble.

That said, one of the program’s highlights occurred when Chatham County Line banjoist Chandler Holt was given roughly 90 seconds to “go cosmic” with a rollercoaster solo that succinctly showcased his technical prowess with being unduly flashy. The biggest reward wasn’t the vocal response from the audience in front of him but the very obvious approval from The Holmes Brothers at his back. All three beamed not like a pack of discerning blues elders but like a group of eager students cheering on a youthful comrade.

rolling with the brotherhood

holmes 2

the holmes brothers. from left: popsy dixon, wendell holmes and sherman holmes.

The secret to the longstanding personal and professional bonds that have allowed the Holmes Brothers to make music together for over four decades might be as difficult to discern as the spark that holds a marriage in place.

But spend a few minutes with the trio’s new blues/soul/gospel drenched album Brotherhood and you soon discover just how strong the group’s foundation is and how effortless its upkeep has been.

“Let me tell you, that is the easiest question of all to answer,” said guitarist, pianist, songwriter and vocalist Wendell Holmes. “We love each other. Brotherhood is not a joke when we say that on an album. It’s for real. We’ve been through all kinds of experiences in 40 years, like playing the dives, the juke joints, the gigs that start at 9 and end at 4 in the morning, from making from 20 to 40 dollars a night. That breeds love. We have to look out for one another and care for one another.”

Brotherhood represents the latest chapter in a career that stems back to when Holmes, 70, older sibling and bassist brother Sherman Holmes, 74, and longtime friend, drummer and “brother from another mother” Poppy Dixon, 72, began playing together in 1967. They began performing as the Holmes Brothers in 1979.

Like so much of their past music, the new record is a merry scrapbook of gospel infused, juke-joint style rhythm-and-blues and organic, blues-referenced rock ‘n’ roll. All three members juggle lead vocal duties, from Wendell’s high soul tenor on the churchy album-opening Stayed at the Party, Sherman’s more rustic blues-soul lead on Last Man Standing and Dixon’s jubilant falsetto on the vintage Ike Turner rocker You’ve Got to Lose.

“You don’t stay with people for 40 years, even in a marriage, if you don’t have some compatibility on what you like,” Wendell said. “We like the blues and we like gospel, so we kind of bring all that stuff together.”

“For me, it’s just the honesty in their music,” said Glenn Patscha of the contemporary roots music band Ollabelle, who co-produced Brotherhood and played keyboards on several of the Holmes Brothers’ most recent recordings.

“These guys don’t play tunes they don’t like, they don’t sing things that they don’t believe in. There’s just that honesty along with the obvious soulfulness, and the blend that they have from singing together for so many years. It’s all that, plus their music just feels right. I love everything about them.”

Reception to the music of the Holmes Brothers has remained strongly positive through the years thanks a performance visibility that has seen the trio touring and recording with such notables as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Kentucky native Joan Osborne, among many others. But it’s the internal bond that continues to bolster the band (which continues to perform as an unaccompanied trio when touring on its own) as well a musical drive that informs and fortifies their family lives that matters most to the Holmes Brothers.

“The exposure goes in cycles if you stay in the business long enough,” Wendell said. “But I tell everybody the most important thing is the three of us working together, loving each other and playing music together because some of my best musical experiences have been right in my own house with my brothers Sherman and Popsy or just sitting down with my wife and my daughters around the piano and singing.

“So it’s not so much about exposure. Exposure is always good. But there has to be something in the belly, you know what I mean? So far, for the three of us, there has always been a fire in the belly, and it’s not fading.”

The Holmes Brothers and Chatham County Line perform at 6:45 p.m. June 30

at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Admission is $10. For reservations, call (859) 252-8888.

in performance: simone felice/dawn landes

SimoneFelice2

simone felice.

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Following lengthy delays caused by a late afternoon cloudburst and an extended between-act soundcheck, Simone Felice delivered an involving and inventive trio set that was over and done with in 35 minutes.

The inaugural headline act of WUKY-FM’s Phoenix Fridays series at Phoenix Park, Felice constructed folk-based storysongs with loose, rockish settings that sported the novel instrumentation of Austrailian electric dobroist Matty Green and acoustic cellist Gabriel Dresdale with the star attraction doubling as drummer and vocalist.

The scant, six song sent was split between three works from the singer’s two solo albums, two from records cut with his Catskill-based brethren The Felice Brothers and a contemplative finale cover of Neil Young’s Helpless.

What was there was quite intriguing. A loose, ragged jam slowly gathered steam before bleeding into If You Go to LA (one of two songs pulled from Felice’s new Strangers album). The tune ended with a more dissonant, deconstructed exchange among the three players. A poppish drive later accented the Felice Brothers’ appealing Radio Song.

Felice also proved an intense and intuitive performer, both as instrumentalist and singer. The jams revealed a willingness to tinker with a song’s mood and groove, but he remained a storyteller at heart while singing the mantra-like verses of You and I Believe (from his untitled 2012 solo debut album) and constructing the almost spiritual cast given to Helpless.

And that was it. After six songs, he politely bid Phoenix Park adieu. The set was roughly half the length of the preceding set-up and soundcheck and considerably shorter than the fine opening outing by Dawn Landes.

dawnlandes

dawn landes.

The Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based Landes favored a set of spacious, midtempo Americana tunes with strong country undertows and a style of singing that was steadfast and confident despite the often vulnerable nature of songs like Straight Lines and Wandering Eye. Picture Natalie Merchant singing Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan and you get a partial idea of where Landes’ music was coming from.

Especially arresting was her cover of Southern Accents, the title tune to one of Tom Petty’s worst albums. The original version’s solemn pace would have fit in easily with the comfortable stride of Landes’ set. But the singer amped up the song and cut loose with a rootsy gusto that provided another dimension to an already strong performance.

in performance: gordon lightfoot

gordon lightfoot

gordon lightfoot.

“Everything we’re going to play tonight was written in the 20th century,” remarked Gordon Lightfoot near the onset of his return concert last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

For the numerous elders in the audience, those were words of comfort. For nearly 50 years, Lightfoot’s catalog of pop-folk songs – which last night shifted from overtly sentimental ballads to tunes with vastly darker narrative undertows – have been rightly revered. As such, a promise from the singer to feature a repertoire from the last part of the last century seemed an enticing proposition even though the concert also proved certain technical elements from the past simply can’t be recaptured.

Let’s get the show’s most outward blemish out of the way. While Lightfoot’s songs have aged beautifully, his voice simply hasn’t. His vocals have been getting thinner and reedier over the past decade. Last night, Lightfoot lost considerable definition, especially in his upper register, which made songs like Carefree Highway and Cotton Jenny an obvious struggle.

But as a friend correctly summarized after the show, “He worked with what he had.” To that end, there were several songs that actually took on a new, sage-like maturity within Lightfoot’s limited vocal reach. One, quite ironically, was 1972’s Don Quixote. Unintentional as the song’s theme and intent were for the occasion, it was still apt for Lightfoot, at age 75, to inhabit the soul of Cervantes with a self-empowered drive that “shouts across the ocean to the shore till he can shout no more.”

Another example was Restless, one of several tunes pulled from 1993’s Waiting for You album. It came across as sleekly gray and decidedly autumnal meditation orchestrated by the light-as-air keyboard support of Michael Heffernan.

The hits were proudly welcomed, too. The sea chanty epic The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was acknowledged by Lightfoot as a “responsibility” to play (a nod to the 29 very real lives that perished in the wreck) while the breakthrough ballad If You Could Read My Mind still possessed a quiet but devastating sadness that earned the singer a standing ovation.

Despite the vocal liability, Lightfoot showed no signs of any impending retirement. In fact, the final line of the evening’s closing song – the title tune from Waiting for You – suggested an audience rapport triggered by a still adventuresome spirit: “Waiting for you to say ‘let us begin.’”

songs of strangers

SimoneFelice1

simone felice.

For his second solo album, Simone Felice adopted Strangers not only as a title, but as a point of reference for the 10 songs it contains.

There is a certain irony in that practice, as one of the many sub-themes that fall under the title banner is identity. For Felice, that’s an important and personal issue. After introducing himself as one of the Catskill Mountain-bred Felice Brothers, he parted amicably to begin a more folk-directed solo project called The Duke and the King. Now, he is two albums into a career that places his own music under his own name.

The new album may be called Strangers and its songs contain concise, roots-infused sagas filled with characters that, in varying degrees, reflect that title. But this year, Felice, the inaugural artist in WUKY-FM’s free Phoenix Friday summer concert series, is becoming less and less a stranger himself.

“I started to think about that word ‘strangers’ and the idea that we can fall madly in love, we can be intertwined with people and then time can just fly by,” Felice said. “You turn your head around and look in the rear view mirror and you wonder where those people have gone. They become strangers, you know? As you look in the mirror, you may even be a stranger to yourself. I really wanted to talk about that.

“Musically, we were lucky because we got to kind of stretch out over the course of a couple months last fall. It was the perfect autumn time up in the Catskill Mountains, where we’re from. All the leaves were changing, friends were around, my brothers came in to sing, as did a lot of my friends (including members of the Lumineers).

“Some of the songs have a lonely feeling to them. I’ve always been a fan of those lonely kinds of songs – you know, songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. But I also enjoy having a posy and making rock ‘n’ roll, too. So we got to do a bit of both and work on the arrangements and the instrumentation as we went along without having to really rush it or do it in a way that wasn’t fitting or serving the song. That was really my mantra for the whole record – to serve the song. If you listen to it closely, the music just leads you in the right direction.”

A novelist and poet as well as songwriter, Felice began making music in his teens as part of punk and noise bands with friends and later with his own songs in the clubs and streets of NewYork. But it was with The Felice Brothers, which sounded initially like a Cajun-esque variant of The Band, that he was introduced to a performance life outside of the Catskills and New York.

“I would never have learned how to be a musician or how to sing if I didn’t begin this journey with my brothers. We all learned how to play together. None of us had any musical training. I learned how to play the drums just because we needed a drummer. So I bought a snare drum and a high hat. We would busk in New York City subways and the streets. That’s how I learned to play music and sing.

“Then going further as a solo artist, I was really able to find my own voice as a singer and producer just by going out there touring and singing in old churches, on the streets, in a theatre or a venue – wherever. To me, it’s been like on the job training. Every night, I’m learning something new about the mystery of what it means to be a singer and a player.”

Simone Felice and Dawn Landes perform at 5 p.m. June 27 at Phoenix Park, Main and S. Limestone for WUKY’s free Phoenix Fridays series. Call (859) 257-3221 or go to http://wuky.org

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