A Very Special Homecoming

Francis Jones witnesses Duke Special's sell-out Ulster Hall performance

LISTEN to Duke Special's Feet In The Sky (4.15mb)

Duke Special features in the CultureNorthernIreland Podcast.

Inside Track‘This is just such a great moment for me,’ says Peter Wilson as he shakes his head, those last, lingering doubts dispelled. If he didn’t already know it he does now, Duke Special is a bona fide star.

Playing to a thronged Ulster Hall, the choruses of his songs sung back at him by a besotted congregation, this is more than yet another milestone moment - it is validation.

Tonight Wilson’s daydream reveries become reality; Duke Special bolstering the slim ranks of NI artists to have sold out the renowned venue.

The Ulster Hall is suitably decorated for the occasion, an air of sophistication hovering over proceedings. Beautiful old gramophones in the reception, the merchandise stall selling all manner of Duke Special memorabilia. Yes, it isn’t like the old days anymore.

The stage may be bigger, but the brittle heart of the Duke’s music remains. His is a talent unperturbed by occasion, the songs retain that delicious frisson of whispered-to-your-soul intimacy.

Duke Special image (c) Keith Wilson‘Brixton Leaves’ is beguiling, highlighting Wilson’s uncommon ear for combining a sweet melody with a bruised lyric, the accented, euphoric emphasis on that one word ‘Belfast’ encapsulating everything that this night means to audience and performer.

This Music Hall maestro, a throwback to a bygone age, dazzles with an assemblage of song drawn from the heart’s wellspring, tales of love gone awry, of passion, pathos and crippling nostalgia.

Though the setlist draws heavily from debut album ‘Songs From The Deep Forest’, proceedings are not without the odd surprise.

‘Baby Britain’ receives the Duke Special treatment, tendrils of regret and hope wrapping themselves about Wilson as he channels the spirit of troubled troubadour Elliott Smith.

Later in the set there is a sprightly set-to, trumpet and guitar squaring up, jiving in the throes of a ‘Tainted Love’.

Suddenly Wilson ushers a diminutive figure from stage-left, it is a sunglasses-enveloped pixie, Neil Hannon, the pop princeling, son of a preacherman come to minister to his flock.

They make a most debonair and OTT double act, Hannon mustering melodrama from every pore, Wilson throwing himself manfully into the theatrical mêlée.

At the song’s close Hannon bestows his blessing: ‘Duke Special, a great songwriter, a great performer and a really nice fella.’ That said, the Duke slips the punchline fiver into Hannon’s pocket.

A thundering ‘Salvation Tambourine’ and joyous ‘Freewheel’ eloquently demonstrate Wilson’s abilities - financial incentive is not required to tease out our admiration.

Hannon dutifully returns the fiver and duets with Wilson for some old-time whimsy on ‘Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes’.

Tonight all thine eyes are on Duke Special, a musical medusa who leaves us all statue-like, transfixed, as he comes into the audience’s midst for one last hurrah, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.’

From Larry’s Piano Bar to the Ulster Hall, it’s been a strange old journey; rest assured never again will anyone put this baby in the corner.