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Simone Felice & Robert “Chicken” Burke are:
the DUKE & the KING by Crispin Kott

The Duke and the King are no longer just the pair of wayfaring bon vivants in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; thanks to Simone Felice and Robert “Chicken” Burke, the Duke and the King are also an intriguing new partnership between two musicians based in the Hudson Valley, but with histories that stretch across oceans. Felice is best known as a founding member of Americana group the Felice Brothers, who over the past few years have risen in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, playing big ticket festivals like Bonnaroo and All Points West.

But while he spent much of his time behind the drum kit in his former band, the pressure of Felice’s move to the foreground in the Duke and the King is actually something he’s been steeling himself for all his life.

“I was a poet and a songwriter, and I used to walk around England and Germany and America and read poetry,” he says. “I used to just do that by myself. I read on the BBC Radio when I was 22 years old. It took a long time to stand up in front of people and do that and not be afraid. Even in the Felice Brothers, I had to get up and sing in front of 6,000 people. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of time to cut my teeth on it.”

When Felice decided it was time to move on, he did so with a familiar face, one who has been there since the Felice Brothers—two of them, anyway: Ian and Simone—were known as the Big Empty.

“Ian wasn’t sure he wanted to be a singer-songwriter, and Simone brought him over to my house in Brooklyn,” says Burke, who produced what would become Iantown, the Felice Brothers’ “bootleg.” It was during that time Burke and Simone Felice grew close.

“We formed a real relationship right away in terms of views of the world, views of humanity and what we really think is going on out here,” Burke said. “We quickly connected.”

Burke, a multi-instrumentalist, came to the area more than a decade ago to manage a recording studio. He’s played drums for Toshi Reagon, formed various bands with former members of Bad Brains and Parliament-Funkadelic, and has spent much of the past two years traveling back and forth between Paris and the US to score films.

Their relationship cemented by their early work together, it was only a matter of time before Felice and Burke became musical partners, the latter encouraging the former to develop the music he was beginning to compose outside the Felice Brothers

“He came to me last summer with a couple of tunes, and I felt like he started to find who he was as a singer/songwriter,” Burke says.

“A lot of times in life you can be doing it, but it might take time to find your horse.”

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When discussing the Duke and the King, Felice and Burke often speak in grand, sweeping terms, giving the impression that to them, this is more than just a band, their music more than just a simple collaboration.

“More than anything I can really say, I want the poetry on the album to speak for itself,” says Felice, referring to Nothing Gold Can Stay, their full-length debut out on Ramseur Records on August 4. “The album is a whole piece. It’s a story from top to bottom. The poetry and the feeling of the record is more important than anything I can say.”

Burke is equally esoteric.

“It’s been very simple, natural,” Burke says. “We’ve both been walking on the same path with a similar type of music. Everything is natural and everything is a compromise. Whenever you collaborate with someone, there’s always magic to be found if your heart and mind are open to it.”

But it’s more than an affectation or device. Listening to the music on Nothing Gold Can Stay, it’s clear the Duke and the King believe in what they say. And it’s hard not to believe right along with them.

Mixed and mastered in Brooklyn by Grammy winning Bassy Bob Brockmann, Nothing Gold Can Stay retains the intimate feel of its rural roots in Bearsville, while also evoking the soul of the city. It’s a fine line, to be sure, but one which flows naturally through songs like the strolling ‘70s paean “I Still Remember Love” and the collection’s most urban-flavored track, “Lose My Self.”

“I would call it bold and dangerous soft music,” Burke says. “It’s turbulent, but it’s easy. The struggle is alive and real in the music.”

But Felice assures fans of the Felice Brothers that the turbulence on Nothing Gold Can Stay has nothing to do with what led him to go his own way.

When a popular band fractures while still at the top of their game, it’s tempting to believe there’s something wicked at the heart of it: a battle of egos or musical direction or possibilities even more sinister. But in the case of Simone Felice’s departure from the the band—which now consists of Ian and James Felice, Christmas Clapton, and Greg Farley—it all came down to a single voice.

“I’ve always my whole life listened to the voice in my head,” says Felice. “It’s what spawned the Felice Brothers. And that voice is what told me to do what I’m doing now with my poetry and this new story. That voice in my head has led me to where I am as a poet, and that’s what I’ve been since I was a kid, worshiping that religion of poetry. That voice speaks, and I’m just a slave to it.”

Felice, who played with his brothers at Webster Hall earlier in the year, isn’t stepping away from the band completely. He’ll still continue making appearances with them from time to time, though his role is less official than in years past.

“We’re brothers,” Felice says. “We absolutely love each other, and we came up in the trenches with each other, playing in the subways in New York. That kind of love that’s shared in the platoon is forever. It’s all love between us. No tension, nothing like that. Just a different vision and a different time in my life.”

That vision was recently shared with music fans in New York and England, the latter having already given the Felice Brothers their undying love and affection.

“America’s been really good to the Felice Brothers and me, and we have a similar thing over there,” Felice says. “We’re American poets, and we’re an American band, you know. But when you go to England, we’re a little exotic.”

The future is still unfolding for the Duke and the King, with a tour in the works, as well as an upcoming appearance at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble.

“We’ve got a lot of surprises to come,” Burke said. —R



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