Ulaid & Duke Special
Friday 9th February 2018 – The Duncairn, Belfast
‘Duncairn Gardens, on the Antrim Road, I hope I return here soon’ sings Duke Special, eyes closed, dreads swinging over half of his face. Completely improvised, his voice carries over a packed out room, Dónal O’Connor’s lustrous fiddle melodies clinging to the old church roof of The Duncairn. A genuine ode not only to the place and the people behind it, but to it’s ethos of creativity and art for the masses. When he sings ‘To all that hear the words and the notes we sing, we mean every note, we mean everything’, there is no doubting the sincerity behind it. This easy emotion and authenticity encapsulates Ulaid & Duke Special’s on-stage presence. While the evening focused on the fruit of their collaboration, ‘A Note Let Go’, they showed an evident ease in slipping into improvised song or a set or reels. Ulaid, a bona fide trad supergroup consisting of Dónal O’Connor (fiddle), John McSherry (pipes, low whistle) and Seán Óg Graham (guitar) make an unlikely pairing with Duke Special, but one that bloody well works.
The nights starts on a tender note with ‘Emily Dickinson’, a poem by Belfast poet Michael Longley that Duke Special has transformed into song. The theme of storytelling and breathing new life into our literary history is one that winds through the night, strikingly so in Dónal O’Connor’s ‘A note to Heaney’, an aching air that freewheels into a chaotic, cathartic jig ‘The topper-upper’ (named in honour of the kind soul that follows behind you at a Fleadh, topping-up your drink). In between tunes, O’Connor and Duke Special share a few anecdotes while the latter vapes nonchalantly. One cracker actually involves Special apologising profusely to everyone for having set the fire alarm in the Lyric theatre off with his vape, only to discover it was a drill. Scundered.
As the night goes on the musical complement becomes clear, old Special songs such as ‘Digging an Early Grave’ are infused with an impish, polka-driven energy and spliced with a reel in the middle, while Special’s booming keys add a bassy depth to reels and jigs. The crowd love it, all across the hall heads are bopping and feet are tapping, shrieks of euphoria punctuating John McSherry’s otherworldly piping. Audience participation reaches its peak during the ‘Portaferry String’ set when Pat O’Connor jumps up from the crowd, scattering people and chairs, to beat out a few steps on the dancefloor. Very impressive steps at that. For some unfortunate reason however, all good craic must come to an end. With a final encore of ‘My Lagan Love’ and Finbar Fury’s ‘El Garrotín’, the group take their final bows to a roaring standing ovation.
There’s an Irish saying, ‘An rud is annamh is iontach’, what’s rare is wonderful. The trad-fusion Ulaid and Duke Special have created is undoubtedly both. Richly crafted tunes, steeped in stories of the land and the complicated, breathtaking business of being alive. For all of our sakes, I too hope they return to Duncairn Gardens soon.