Duke Special, Purcell Room, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

His press photographs don't do him justice, that's for sure. It's not the ginger dreads or the kohl-lined eyes so much as Duke Special's mad-eyed stare. On stage, the Belfast singer (known to his friends by the rather more humdrum moniker of Peter Wilson) cuts a far cuddlier figure.

I must admit that I wasn't a great fan of Duke's debut album for V2, Songs from the Deep Forest, although many critics were. There's a touch of Rufus Wainwright to his voice and it was suitably ramshackle-romantic (both good things), but there was also something a little too sincere about it, which fell on the wrong side of cheesy. In the amiable environs of the Purcell Room, I stood corrected. The live setting breathed life into the songs, helped by a versatile backing band who oozed charm from every tinkling cheese-grater and clanging bell. And it helped that the crowd was on his side.

From the opener, "Closer To The Start" - which Duke banged out on a scruffy old upright piano while the percussionist Chip bashed the drums - they were in the palm of his hand. After some friendly whoops from the crowd, the rest of the band joined him for "Everybody Wants A Little Something". The sweet sincerity of "Slip Of A Girl" shimmered in contrast to Duke's crusty image, while "Wake Up Scarlett" had an epic robustness, like a Keane song played by a bunch of Northern Irish hobos, only better.

The band's imaginative use of instruments kept their saccharine tendencies in check. Ben Hales played his guitar with a violin bow on more than one occasion; Duke wound up an old music box; Chip bashed a cheese-grater with a whisk and then brought out a curious instrument comprising bells, horns and a cake tin nailed to a stick. Ben Castle's gypsyish clarinet and sax added to the rowdiness.

David Ford and the pedal-steel virtuoso B J Cole joined the band for "Freewheel", the former almost ruining it with his melodramatic singing. But, by the encore, the band looked chuffed with themselves, and closed with a chaotic Christmas medley that took in a vagabondish "Last Christmas", a jazzy "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and, um, "Ace Of Spades". Chip played not one, but two of his crazy instruments. For this alone, a standing ovation was in order, and they got one.

Duke Special tours in February ( www.dukespecial.com)