By Helen Moat
While the curtain of dreadlocks remains (growing ever longer), the eyeliner is gone – and surprisingly, it makes less difference than imagined. It seems that the maturing Duke Special feels less compelled to make a statement, allowing the music to speak for itself. And it speaks volumes.
This evening there are no song sheets, no second piano pushed into the centre of the audience; no props, gramophones or film reels – which always add an element of surprise and delight to Duke’s unique and idiosyncratic shows. A night out with Duke Special isn’t your run-of-the-mill gig experience, but an adventure in music. Tonight is no different, even though it’s just the man, his piano, voice and music - albeit accompanied by drummer and percussionist extraordinaire, Chip Bailey.
The stage is crammed with instruments – some more conventional than others. Among the drum kits, guitars and keyboards (shared with the excellent German support act, Sea + Air), there are two stumpf fiddles - a sort of walking stick with ‘mad things’ attached (Chip’s own description), including a hooter, bicycle bell, springs and popcorn-shaker). Hidden among the bigger gear is a small wooden instrument, a shruti box - a pulsating drone harmonium that creates a haunting, wistful sound.
If you were to try and pinpoint the magic of the live Duke Special experience, the clue is in the juxtaposition of those instruments littering the stage at the Flowerpot in Derby. Whatever the combination of instruments or gig formation (from full session band to a duo with Chip and solo), Duke draws on the full palette of human emotion. His shows are in turn joyous, playful, raucous, poignant and deeply moving. Most people go home with a sense of having been shaken alive – rather like the Chipstick.
Once again Duke Special delivers in Derby, delighting old-timers with a generous sprinkling of upbeat and jaunty tunes from Songs from the Deep Forest (often overlying darker lyrics). The fans can’t help but sing along – and Chip’s dexterity on mad-cap percussion (whisk, cheese-grater and rolling pin included) only adds to the sense of fun.
In the same vein, Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club (co-written with Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy) is given its now regular outing. Written for The Silent World of Hector Mann, it’s become a gig-favourite with its breakneck delivery and old-style humour inspired by the music-hall tradition, while the catchy Digging an Early Grave from I Never Thought this Day would Come encapsulates the dark comedy that’s often present in Duke’s repertoire. It’s an Ohrworm and it’s not surprising the crowd at the Flowerpot seem to know all the words.
In contrast, Salvation Tambourine (another gig regular) is a mix of rock-and-roll-attitude and lyrical poignancy. I’ve heard this song at pretty much every Duke Special gig I’ve attended, yet he reinterprets it musically every time, keeping it fresh. In the same category, a rendition of Nothing Comes Easy draws the gig-attenders in with its rock-style drama.
In a Dive shocks with its first line, ‘Jesus and his blood don’t mean so much anymore’ but goes on to express the notion that something profound and spiritual can be found in the most unlikely of places. It’s this sense of honesty, and the courage to explore places that are no doubt uncomfortable for Duke Special (and others) that is intriguing, thought-provoking and challenging.
Between the heavier rock songs, upbeat pop tunes, music-hall humour and vaudeville entertainment, there are slower, quieter contemplative ballads that are highly personal and are sung with such emotional intensity, I feel I’m an intruder in the small, intimate space of the Flowerpot.
Listening to Statues, also from Look Out Machines, it’s hymn-like structure has a moving simplicity and intimacy that gives me goose bumps - echoing the words in the song, ‘There will one day come a time, your name won’t shiver down my spine.
As Peter Wilson (aka Duke Special) gains experience as a song-writer his lyrics gain maturity too (a lyrical maturity that goes well beyond the average singer-songwriter). His endlessly inventive use of imagery is powerful and imaginative. I’d hoped that he would showcase more of his newest material, including the wonderful Wingman that combines great song-writing and poetic lyricism: ‘We flew in a tight formation, acrobatic spill and roll… We could navigate the currents east to west and pole to pole.’
But that’s the rub, Special has been so prolific over the last decade he can draw on an extensive back catalogue of music that’s varied in composition and theme. His ‘best of’ across many albums is clearly a crowd-pleaser tonight.
His own material apart, Duke Special has a beguiling ability to breathe new life into the work of others, making it his own and drawing the listener in. Perhaps this evening’s highlight is Neil Young’s Harvest Moon: a tender yet subtle performance of immense vocal control that leaves the Flowerpot audience spell-bound and with the sense they’ve experienced something deeply spiritual in this dimly lit, slightly grubby Derby pub. I think of the words to In a dive: ‘I have seen God in all these kinds of dives… don’t shrink it down to the size of your head, you know that some things are more than can ever be said’. At the end of the day, no amount of words can capture what is so… well special… about Duke Special live – you have to go and experience it. The music speaks for itself.
And Just Recently...
- October 18, 2015: The Duchess, York UK.reviewed by York Calling. Video below from this performance:
- October 25, 2015: Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmith UK reviewed by Mr Teeth Reviews.