The Divine Comedy/Duke Special

Francis Jones caught the homegrown double-bill at the Mandela Hall, November 12

The queue outside Queen’s Students' Union forms a slow, crawling S shape, its tail slithering all the way to the rear of the building. Tonight the multitudes have gathered, cold on the pavement, but warmed by eager anticipation.

We are ready to welcome The Divine Comedy and Duke Special back home, fresh from a 30-date excursion through Europe. In that time Duke Special has been elevated, joining the proud tickertape parade of NI acts that have dragged UK audiences to a belated realisation of their talents.

Tonight he opens for Neil Hannon, The Divine Comedy maestro whose theatrical flourishes have paved the way for the Duke’s own brand of dramatically-charged showmanship.

Given his recent ascension, it is no surprise that the Mandela audience are in full attendance at the court of tonight’s opening act, Duke Special. Accompanied only by Temperance Society Chip Bailey on percussion, this is an emotionally charged performance.

‘Brixton Leaves’ is elegantly poignant; the lyrical name-check of ‘Belfast’ invested with a newfound significance, Duke Special our latest Belfast boy made good.

These are songs that seep from bleeding hearts, ‘Free Wheel’ buoyed by a flighty spirit, ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ alternates between the strident and fragile, and the finale, ‘Salvation Tambourine, is full of romantic renderings. He departs the stage feted by one and all, the crowd clamouring for more after an oh-so-brief half-hour set.

Performing in this very venue only a handful of years ago, Neil Hannon administered the final rites to The Divine Comedy. Tonight they are back, reincarnated and reinvigorated, touring their finest album for some years, Victory For The Comic Muse.

Opening on the sweetly serene ‘Mother Dear’, Hannon and company proceed to cherry-pick from his extensive back catalogue and in doing so provide a joyous, all-winners set. Those mid-nineties classics, ‘Casanova’ and ‘Fin de Siècle’, ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’, ‘Something For The Weekend’ and ‘Generation Sex’ are each an audience inclusive, sing-along soirée.

However, it is especially thrilling to hear tracks from the ‘Promenade’ and ‘Liberation’ albums which showcased the desires of a young man’s heart, all heaving breast and glorious melodrama.

The ever-polished and preening Hannon is in impish mood, refusing to acknowledge the repeated demands for ‘My Lovely Horse’, instead sating the ‘Father Ted’ fixated with a pleasantly meandering ‘Songs Of Love’.

Duke Special reappears, taking a chorus of ‘Mastermind’, and a chorus of heartfelt applause from the appreciative audience into the bargain. Then an act of whimsy that provides one of the evening’s many highlights, a startling cover of Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’, an act of homage from one diminutive pop-star to another, the carousing Hannon crooning to his and our heart’s content whilst stylishly modelling, yes, a raspberry beret.

Throughout, Hannon is charm personified, his rapier wit disarming the audience one and all. We laugh as a member of the crowd proclaims that she wants his babies. 'You can’t have my babies, get your own,’ he quips. It is a mutual love-in and no mistaking.

By the encore, a hip-swinging ‘National Express’ and heart-striating ‘Sunrise’, there can be no doubting the validity of the large letter ‘V’ that adorns the set. V for Victory, you better believe it.

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