Duke Special (aka Belfast-born Peter Wilson) is a one-off, and he produced a memorable gig at the uncomfortably warm Proud Galleries in Camden before a collection of regulars and a scattering of suits. He appeared on a stage littered with the telltale signs of a Duke Special gig, including a decrepit piano. The audience was silenced with the first chord of "Mocking Bird Wish Me Luck".
Ramping it up, Duke Special introduced his compatriot drummer, who played around with the beat on an interesting array of percussive tools. The crowd took the singer's lead into his most recent single, "Sweet, Sweet Kisses".
As in so many of his tunes, on this song the sweet and bitter combine, but it's the bitter from where he seems to draw most inspiration. We were privy to what the Duke then aptly named a death trilogy, with the foot-stomping "Diggin' an Early Grave", the haunting murder ballad "Henry Lee" (performed with another compatriot, his support act, Dan Michaelson), and the bone-rattling "Flesh and Blood Dance", during which we were strongly encouraged to respond in a chorus of "All we want is flesh and blood".
Audience participation seems to be vital to Duke Special's endearing brand of vaudeville. A grand storyteller and lyricist, he stands at his piano, behind a curtain of dreadlocks and black eyeliner, and draws the crowd into his tales of heartbreak and woe.
Bernard Butler of Suede joined in for the catchily titled "Those Proverbs We Made in the Winter Must End", which he co-wrote with Duke, his guitar sounding like liquid in among the honky-tonk of the piano.
Then came the unexpected: Duke asked us poor, overheated audience members to make way as he dragged a second old, beaten-up set of ivories over the cobblestones to the middle of the floor, where he regaled us with the jaunty story of "Jockey Club (a Bitch Called Wanda)", a real tongue-twister of a song. Despite one small tangle, the audience were all in awe of his confidence and command. You can tell Duke is very comfortable with performing, for, despite the subject matter of loss, love and heartbreak, he encourages the audience to join in, and, like a practiced choir, we did. Escaping back to to the low stage, he rolled on through a few more songs, including the oh-so-melancholy "Why Does Anybody Love?" and finally the ridiculously titled "Last Night I Nearly Died".
From the loud eruptions of the crowd, you could tell we were singing from the same hymn sheet. To our delight, the expected encore brought him back down on to the floor and to the beaten piano, which was this time decorated with candles. The magic of the evening continued for another four songs, including a Victorian drinking song, "Down at the Old Bull and Bush". Even for those unfamiliar with the Duke Special's repertoire, such as myself, the infectious nature of his music makes it easy to find yourself clapping along heartily. Duke and his slightly psychotic percussionist basked in the glow of a thrilled crowd, and his final goodbye of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs's "Maps" was almost tear-jerking.Reuse content