Proving that good things come to those who wait, Getintothis‘ Emma Walsh is kept on tenterhooks for the enduring magic of musical marvel Duke Special at The Arts Club.
It’s been some years since we’ve seen Duke Special live but memories of his typically spellbinding performances have never faded beyond the charming antiquated 1930’s dusk the artist seems to permeate. He was bound to be right at home in the quiet grandeur of the Arts Club.
Opening with one of the jewels in his song-writing crown, No Cover Up, Duke was quick to remind us of the poetic charm which first caught our attention, that and the punctuated Belfast brogue which brings forth a bitter sweet homesickness. Throwing a cover in early, as he’s oft inclined to do, Duke put his dramatic turn of speech to good use with Magnetic Fields’ Andrew in Drag.
With something old and something borrowed it was time for something new, and In a Dive was a just what the troubadour ordered. A tale of the often secreted beauty of his divided hometown, Duke Special paid his respects to modern day Belfast before his storytelling brought us back to the earliest blossoming years of New York city with Hand of Man, a song from a collection based on a series of old photographs.
New single Nail on the Head gave the crowd a taste of things to come on the new album but despite the warm crests that Duke’s voice peaked it was impossible to dismiss the croaks and caws that were to hound large parts of his performance. Making the call out for requests Duke Special sat down to the beautiful timeworn upright piano to deliver fans’ favourite Freewheel, perhaps the definitive track of his extensive songbook. It seemed a shame then that it was delivered in so low, so stale a tone unlike the uplifting heights for which it’s best known. It seems a career’s worth of cigarettes has begun to take its toll on Duke’s stunning scope, a crying shame for those of us who’ve followed his career over the years, but fresh ears were still blown away by the ardor and reach of his voice.
Perhaps a first in our gigging history, Duke told the crowd how quite at home the intimate, laid back atmosphere had made him, “I feel we know each other quite well by now” he told the crowd “So I don’t feel awkward telling you, I’ve really got to pee!” and off he went backstage for a brief interval in proceedings – conveniently, just long enough for us to get a round in.
The gig continued with songs new and classic (Wake Up Scarlet getting the crowd singing along) and there was a wealth of covers which Duke Special has made his own over the years. With a series of ditties from the songbook of the famous entertainer Ivor Novello including I’m Going To a Field, a song that has often wandered around our mind without warning or good reason.
Finishing, he believed on another cover, Big Star’s Thirteen, Duke said his goodnights but the crowd had not yet had their fill of his special brand of theatrical lullabies and returning the stage humbly, if not a little peeved, he delivered the undoubted highlight of the night with a remarkable rendition of Old Man River that brought us out in goosebumps. If we were at times throughout the night left wanting for the magic and sheer power of Duke’s bone rattling beautiful voice his swansong was just what we’d been waiting for.
Better late than never eh Duke?
Photos by Getintothis’ Martin Saleh: