On walking through the doors of lovely old Bush Hall, there was immediately a decision to be made. For there in the middle of the audience space, barely raised a couple of feet above the floor, were a grand piano and three microphones. On the real stage were a battered old upright piano and a few other mics. In this cosy venue there was barely fifteen metres between the two set-ups, so I opted for a corner of the main stage, which could also be used as a handy seat for a good view backwards when necessary. Others choose to sit around the grand piano, as if waiting for a camp fire sing-a-long. Little did I know that would be exactly the feel of one part of what would happen this memorable evening.
I have been enjoying Duke Special, a.k.a. Peter Wilson’s, lush 2006 album Songs From The Deep Forest for some time, and had already caught a full-band show in the spring that had put them firmly in my top 10 live acts. Even if you only have a passing interest in the album itself, Wilson is an artist who must be seen live – he’ll put a shiver down the spine of anyone who enjoys good music delivered with theatrical drama, throbbing gusto, and exposed heart. An intoxicating contradictory mix of the misty Irish longing of Van Morrison wrapped in the sparkling dandy charm of Rufus Wainwright (but without the ‘look at me, look at me’ pleading), then scuffed dirty by the world-weary desolation of Tom Waits. And it’s such a joy to see his talented ensemble always so clearly intent on entertaining – no shoe gazing here! Duke Special had already experimented with a series of ‘theme nights’ for re-interpretations of their songs in Wilson’s native Belfast, and now the troop had come to London. Tonight was to be music hall night – which meant the heartbreakers stripped to their romantic bones and audience participation for the up-beat stuff.
Folk-blues three-piece Songdog began the evening. I warmed to their poetic lyrics and tidy arrangements (nice slide guitar and mandolin work) without being completely knocked out by their tales of the seedier side of life. Maybe those lyrics were just a bit too dense at times. It did help that I quickly derived their origins, the song “Sands of Porthcawl” reminding me of days at the South Wales seaside. Annoying the Taffia can get very nasty, so I’m not saying a word against them, and it’s not everyone who can say that Springsteen is a fan and has covered one of their songs live.
There was little work for the stage techs to do, with most time spent trying to light up the range of candles on top of the upright piano, and soon the shy showman Wilso arrived on stage – dapper tweed suit juxtaposed with trademark dreadlocks and eye-liner. He was joined by stocky fellow Irishman Réa Curran (trumpet/piano/vocals/accordian) and bohemian Sgt. Pepper bandsman Ben Hales (sax/clarinet/vocals/grinning). After several songs on the stage from Duke and Curran, the full trio moved on to the alternative area. The small but adoring audience clustered around and song sheets were handed out and votes taken for the songs to be performed. To give you some idea of the playful mayhem that followed, the covers ranged from the Clash’s “Janie Jones” to a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek version of Van Halen’s “Jump”. That segment finished with a couple of songs from Kurt Weil’s unfinished operetta The Life of Huckleberry Finn, which Duke Special are apparently working on as a project for release next year.
And sprinkled throughout were the gloriously melodic songs of Duke Special themselves. Back at the front stage and close enough to even hear the sax key levers squeak, I was transfixed – as was the rest of the audience. Wilson’s passionate vocals floated out across the room, touching the souls of all they reached. The evening reached a bruised emotional pinnacle with “This Could Be My Last Day”. Slowly blowing each of the candles out, Wilson slid into darkness and retreated from the stage. But no way was that enough, and a rumbustuous encore saw them all back in the round, and eccentric drummer extraordinaire Chip Bailey was even dragged out from the throng – in this case wielding ‘Stumpy’ – his famous mobile percussion stick. It was right to end with a smile.
Astonishingly, if not by choice, Duke Special are now ‘between labels’ (V2, what were you thinking of?). They’ll be supporting Crowded House on the UK leg of their tour, but for the full experience, catch them headlining – somewhere, anywhere. Really. They are that special.