Duke Special

Francis Jones watches a star shoot into the big time

We’ve watched him play every venue in Belfast and beyond these last few years, unceasing effort expended in an attempt to have his inestimable talent recognised.

No wonder then that tonight there was a real sense of celebration, the feeling that at long last a local hero was getting their due. However, there was just a touch of poignancy; for having signed a major label deal with V2 this would perhaps be the last opportunity to see the dashing Duke in such an intimate venue. If so it was a brilliant, bleary-eyed send off.

The stage was bestrewn with the wonderful paraphernalia that accompanies a Duke Special live performance, that old gramophone, a record player, antique radio, Chip Bailey’s bespoke drum/percussion kit and hammond organ. It helps create that very peculiar ambience, a tightly coiled theatrical aura, which accompanies every Duke Special performance.

Also accompanying the Duke is a veritable musical menagerie of musicians, Temperance Society Chip Bailey on drums, percussion and kitchen utensils, Réa Curran on trumpet and stop organ, the Outlaw Serge Archibald III on gramophone and clarinet, the Morris Dancer Ben Hales on pedal steel and Slim Jackie Flavelle on upright bass.

And at the centre, the kohl-eyed, dreadlocked figure of Duke Special, unfailingly polite, his charming reserve stands in counterpoint to his outrageous songwriting ability. If ‘songwriter’ isn’t a terribly limiting epithet for such an outrageously and dextrous performer.

‘I Let You Down’ stomps out a tale of shame-faced behaviour, the insistent drums giving it a bold, almost belligerent feel. Trembling with sweet emotion, Last Night I Nearly Died is delightfully woozy. The construction of the songs is extraordinarily precise and measured; the arrangements are complex and build with irresistible momentum. In effect what Duke Special has created is melodramatic, orchestral pop.

There are so many moments that we will cherish from this evening, that cover of  Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Temperance Society instructing us in the little known musical merits of the cheese grater, even an inadvertent comic interlude as Réa Curran headbutts his microphone.

But, more than this what lingers is the sweet recall of the Duke’s singular and remarkable music, be it ‘Freewheel’ with its vocal that swoops from high yearning and plummets to sorrowful depths, the lavish ‘No Cover Up’ or the giddy impudence of ‘Portrait’.

And what of ‘John Lennon Love’, the Duke clambers from the stage into the midst of his people, Temperance Society conducts the audience to perform vocal harmonies and we attentive courtiers are only too happy to comply.

It has been a remarkable performance, turned mutual love-in and now like all great love affairs it is time to do what is best for the object of our affections, to cut the strings that bind them to our heart and watch as our beloved, Duke Special, ascends to ever greater heights.