Sunday 9th December 2012 – The MAC, Belfast
“Duke Special and Friends” is the final installation of a weeklong residence at Belfast’s newest arts centre, The MAC. The Duke (aka all round minstrel Peter Wilson) has spent the past few days curating events; inviting performers such as The Futureheads, The Blockheads and Cathy Davey to put on one-off performances. This highly anticipated festival-of-sorts has been a success so far, and it’s not without a little giddiness that we ready ourselves for tonight’s sold out show.
The evening doesn’t exactly get off to a great start: it’s half an hour past the advertised time, and the stage is still empty. There’s an apology for the delay via the box office, but it’s another fifteen minutes before the Duke emerges, tail between his legs and looking a bit sheepish. The crowd are initially a bit miffed, but how can we stay mad at a grown man sporting a wooly balaclava and dreadlocks?
The music gets going with the Duke doing what he does best. It’s just him and the piano as he serenades us with recent single “Punch of a Friend”, and the charming “Slip of a Girl”. More musicians take to the stage as he rolls through “Hand of Man”, and it’s now we start to understand what “…and Friends” meant in the programme. It’s apparent that Duke Special has many: at least twenty join in through the course of the show. Amongst the plethora, we’re treated to a duet of “You Don’t Love Me Yet” (a song which features in one of The MAC’s current exhibitions) with local musician, Claire Hall. The Arco String Quartet takes to the stage for some of the highlights of the evening – sublime renditions of “No Cover Up” and “Last Night I Nearly Died”. The tally of duets rack up, including Foy Vance, May Kay (Fight Like Apes), Burning Codes and Foreign Slippers.
Whilst the standard of music is undoubtedly breathtaking, it’s with surprise that we begin to notice there’s no real flow to the performances. Gaps between songs become ever more prevalent, and an increasingly despondent Duke constantly reassures the audience that the interval is coming up soon. It’s not exactly what you want to hear from the main act.
The second half opens with a chilling duet of “Hard Times Again Come No More” with baritone, Jonathan Gunthorpe. There must have been a pep talk in the interval, because now the mood onstage is more focused, things are less disjointed. “Condition” from latest album Oh Pioneer is full of percussion and vigour, revealing a darker side to Duke Special than in his earlier material. May Kay and Foreign Slippers both give reappearances this side of the break as well. “It may seem like chaos…” the Duke admits, “but it’s deliberately so”. The full band comes to the stage for the final run of tonight’s songs, hits from the back catalogue such as “Wanda” and “Digging an Early Grave”. As enthused as the musicians are, dancing percussionist Chip Bailey and clarinetist Ben Castle only serve to highlight the Duke’s motionless, hands in pockets stance. A final duet with Katie Richardson (Katie and the Carnival) brings an end to the evening, and we’re left wondering whether it went as well as planned. Perhaps he was tired from a week of running loose in The MAC, but it’s possible that Duke Special’s heart just wasn’t in it tonight.