There are no better surroundings on a cold December night than those of the Pepper Canister Church to go and listen to Duke Special perform a selection of tracks from various of his so far fourteen releases. As the audience files into the beautiful, candlelit church with a gramophone track playing quietly in the background, a hum of anticipation slowly builds.
Cavan native Lisa O’Neill is first to take the stage, and brings with her a unique and quirky brand of folk music. Utterly charming from the start, she opens with the sweet, wonderfully awkward and innocent England Has My Man, and follows quickly with the powerful and emotional Neilly’s Song before moving into the slightly more ridiculous. Clearly a story teller, the more unusual Dog Baby goes down a treat, being the story of a child who is half human, half dog, and wonderfully portrays the everyday problems of someone born with such a condition. Between her storytelling, her likeability and her awkward onstage banter, O’Neill instantly endears herself to the audience. She’s certainly a talent to watch for in the future.
Performing completely alone this evening, aided only by occasional use of an electronics track, Duke Special says nothing as he sits in front of his piano for the first time. Instead, he softly moves into opening track I Never Thought This Day Would Come. Sweet and poetic in its opening, it moves into some deep and passionate waters as it develops. Following up with a totally stripped down version of the hit single from ‘Songs from the Deep Forest’, Freewheel is the point at which everyone knows tonight is to be something special. Slow and reserved, Duke has done something wonderful with this song. It becomes almost reverent in its surroundings, and was certainly a highlight of the evening.
Never one to do something by the book, Duke proceeds to hand out a ‘song sheet’ for Last Night I Nearly Died, amongst other following tunes. Clearly playing up the church aspect of the evening, he leads the audience in a choral section, giving a great sense of involvement to the evening. Moving into a section of songs from his most recently released album ‘Oh Pioneer’, we are treated to some new material such as the dark and atmospheric How I Learned To Love The Sun and the The Lost Chord. Regardless of Duke having to be reminded of lyrics by a particularly dedicated audience member, this is a fine example of what makes Duke’s sound special by being a wonderful testimony of melody and passion.
Continuing to treat us, Duke performs a wonderful cover of Ash’s Shine A Light, which he claims is the closest he will get to a Christmas song. This is followed immediately by Tom Waits’ Martha, which although suffers at the hands of Duke’s ability to remember lyrics, is utterly beautiful and wonderfully delicate. After a short medley of tunes inspired by requests from audience members, Duke returns for an encore of favourites, culminating with another cover, Love Will Tear Us Apart Again. Totally devoid of gimmicks and stripped down to the bare essentials, it becomes an almost sacred song when combined with its surroundings.
There is one thing that you can be sure of with Duke Special, and that’s a show. Whether it’s lively and energetic with his band in tow, or whether it’s solo, reverent and ethereal in a small church dotted with tea lights, you can always be guaranteed the Duke will put his soul on display through his music, and that is something special indeed.