Review: Duke Special at Scala, London
by Helen O'Sullivan (GB music administrator)
One of the things that I’m most grateful to Greenbelt Festival for is introducing me to Peter Wilson aka Duke Special. I remember seeing him play there about 9 or 10 years ago in a “magazine show” (possibly Last Orders!) when he was Booley’s frontman – he had baby dreadlocks and was hunched over a tiny keyboard; he made no eye contact with the audience but managed to mesmerise everyone with this beautiful angelic voice with the northern Irish burr. A few years on, Peter’s morphed in to Duke Special, has now got serious dreadlocks and an ever growing loyal following; and he’s a friend of BBC6 Music as well as being a regular on the Radio 2 playlist.
This current tour is showcasing ‘I Never Thought This Day Would Come’ which was listed as “album of the week” on Radio 2 a couple of weeks ago, the week before Bob Dylan’s!
Tonight at the Scala, the set consists of some new arrangements of old songs. There is a dramatic take on ‘Brixton Leaves’ and the old favourite ‘Freewheel’ is refreshed with the lead vocals sung by Gabi Froden of Foreign Slippers (the second of tonight’s support acts, they played in the Performance Café at Greenbelt last year). There are also lots of songs from the new album – some apparently frivolous until you zone out the up-tempo tunes and listen closely to the lyrics, like ‘Diggin’ an Early Grave’, ‘By the Skin of My Teeth’, ‘I Never Thought This Day Would Come (And Now It Won’t Go Away)’, while others are more contemplative like the lovely ‘Mockingbird Wish Me Luck’ and the delicate version of ‘Why Does Anybody Love?’ which stills the crowd.
There’s one cover which is of a Woody Guthrie song ‘Eisler on the Go’ and there are also a few songs from a new project which Duke explains is about a 1920s silent movie actor called Hector Mann who disappeared in mysterious circumstances (I won’t elaborate on his introduction as I don’t want to shatter any illusions). Hector Mann’s story has inspired some show-tune style Duke songs like ‘The Jockey Club (…Wanda)’, ‘Jumping Jacks’ and ‘Double or Nothing’ which we hear tonight.
It’s quite exhilarating to see Duke Special play to a packed out London venue to such a wildly enthusiastic crowd and he seems quite overwhelmed by the rapturous reaction to the set. There is a much appreciated encore, including a lively stumpf fiddle enhanced rendition (courtesy of Temperance Society Chip Bailey) of ‘Our Love Goes Deeper Than This’. The evening finishes with the band and support acts performing a sea shanty type tune ‘Creaky Boat Blues’, unplugged in the middle of the crowd which we all sing along to and carry on singing even when the musicians have wound their way back to the stage and then out of sight. Perfect!