Thursday, 25 April 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Duke Special

The Grand Old "Duke" Of Belfast delivers the goods in front of an attentive Empire crowd

To these eyes and ears, it is somewhat ironic that one of Belfast-born Peter Wilson's - alright, Duke Special's - best known tunes should be "I Let You Down", for the reality is that he does anything but let his audience down. Every single time he performs, he is guaranteed value for money, a cornucopia of high energy, laughs, and infectious verses & choruses. In other words, loony tunes and merry melodies.

But the first questions we find ourselves asking in the Empire on a very wet night are: what's this harp doing in the middle of the stage, and who's the lady that's stepping forward to play it?

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Kate Bush has donned a costume circa "Baboushka" and travelled from afar to entertain us. Actually, it's Belfast-based Ursula Burns, a singer-songwriter and seasoned accompanist with an operatic voice and an outlandish, yet easily identifiable, sense of humour.

Like the "acoustic-comedy-punk-folk" of Hattie Hatstar, Burns' music and manner bemuses, amuses and entertains in one go. It's another successful chapter in her recently acclaimed re-invention as a humourist.

Burns' brand of comedy, and a jokingly earnest introduction by the BT Head Of Marketing - "Hello Belfast - I'm Duke Special!" - is exactly the sort of thing we need to warm us up for the main act. It's his recent assocation with BT - "Sweet, Sweet Kisses" is being used by BT themselves for advertising - that brings "The Duke" to the Empire tonight. And as always, he and his ensemble are determined to make the most of the occasion.

An exceptionally tight and confident opening - the mere sound of the Duke playing piano to signify "Sweet, Sweet Kisses" inspires cheers from the Empire crowd - immediately re-establishes Wilson's unflappable persona. If those dreadlocks of his get caught in his microphone by the time he gets to "Applejack", he's so lost in the jaunty catchiness of the song that he doesn't seem to care, and neither does everyone else. "Everyone else", not just being the audience, of course, but his numerous accompanists, particularly guitarist Paul Pilot, clarinet player Ben Castle and the multi-talented Temperance Society "Chip" Bailey.

The Duke's traditionally upbeat showmanship is everywhere, most memorably in his mimicry during the delightfully amusing, Neil Hannon-penned "Wanda, Darling Of The Jockey Club" (listen below) and also in "Diggin' An Early Grave" which has to be one of the most upbeat-sounding "downers" this writer has ever heard. The sight of three girls in the front row "digging" away during the chorus of said song is definitely something to remember.

As is usually the case with Duke Special gigs, there's so much happening both on stage and in every other corner of the venue that it's sometimes really hard to keep track of everything. Knowing this, the Duke and his band include carefully timed "breathers" in the form of a calm rendition of "Last Night I Nearly Died", an exceptionally melancholy take on his masterpiece "No Cover Up" and the epic, sonic, lyrical storytelling of "Condition", and the calypso-like "Snakes In The Grass". Throw in a few reassuringly familiar singalongs (although "Freewheel" is unfortunately absent) and you have a well-structured set with music to satisfy all tastes. If some renditions are a bit too sorrowful and stretched out for this writer's liking, and the relentless energy is sometimes exhausting, the liberating nature of the gig allows one to overlook this.

The night doesn't quite end as one might expect. Taking a leaf out of Burns' book, the Duke closes things with an improvised song about where numerous members of the audience are from, in a manner akin to most stand-up comics. It's totally out of the blue, but both flattering and amusing; and the more one thinks about it, the more in keeping with the Duke's unorthodox nature it appears to be.

In other words, Typical Duke. And what more could his fans ask for?