Getting into the Deaf Institute a bouncy, pub sing along atmosphere hits me. The upstairs’ room is rammed. There’s a packed turn out for tonight’s gig from a slightly older, dare I say more refined audience. The sing along atmosphere is coming from Duke Special, with band and on an upright piano. Lots of fans are offering plenty of vocal backing support. I’ve been seriously in danger of misunderstanding what Duke Special is about. All I know before tonight are rave reviews from my mate Mark who loves a good stage storyteller. Also I checked Duke out on his website and felt compelled to offer eyeliner application tips. He’s a sight to behold with very long ginger dreads.
His website doesn’t really communicate the depth of thought and mix of ideas behind the songs. On stage he has a gentle stage presence. His ginger dreads cover his face at times, with gorgeous Northern Irish intonation singing out underneath. What is quickly apparent is his ability to break the norm in his genre and not to wallow or be focused on himself as the story of the songs. The room feels upbeat and in playful spirits. The pub or better described, music hall atmosphere doesn’t just equate to simple drinking songs. (Although ‘Apple’ does warn us about the perils of alcohol.) The Duke holds an outward view of life and his songs draw on a mixed bag of inspiration. That’s not to say he isn’t a reflective soul. ‘Punch of a Friend’ tells us about the tricky tough love warnings we all need to hear from time to time from a close mate.
There’s a hearty sprinkling of well known songs that set the audience into word perfect harmonies. ‘Freewheel,’ and ‘Last night I nearly died’ get the loudest backing. It’s clear Duke Special has a loyal following. He mixes music hall jauntiness with obscure art and film references as if it’s second nature. His gentleness shows a quiet confidence and array of well researched, cleverly crafted songs.
“Wow Manchester! I’ve been doing seated gigs but this is a lot better!” We’re feeling very receptive towards this skilled storyteller.
His song references range from an Iranian children’s song to concept albums ‘Under the Dark Cloth’ and ‘The Silent World of Hector Mann.’ The latter features songs about a 1920s silent film star and the former inspired by classic MoMA photographers. The Duke isn’t one to fear bucking any trends. Thats not to say he doesn’t connect with us. Jumps from drinking songs, to love via tales of silent movie waiters keep us on our toes and entertained.
Tonight there’s 2 absolute memorable gems. They’re both set into the encore. ‘Love will tear us apart’ calls out beautifully and to huge cheers from a home crowd. Dan Donnelly comes to take on lead vocals, doing the job with finesse and heavy pauses. It’s a rare sound to enjoy a cover more than the original. ‘Condition’ tells a tale of opposing states with flair:
I’m belief, I am science
I’m peace, I am defiance
I’m the cause, I am effect
I am sober, I am wrecked
When all these fragments start to roar
playing like an orchestra
Sometimes it hard to hear yourself think
It’s like the words are crawling back inside the ink
Duke Special is a master songwriter poet. Lyrical, clever, funny, dark, mad, wistful and a joy to watch. If you don’t know much about him go learn. This review site doesn’t do star ratings, but for tonight lets make an exception. I think Mr Special you’re a 5 out of 5.