On arriving at the O2, we are surprised to find Duke Special reclining against the main bar nodding along to the support; refreshingly modest for an artist of his standing. Fresh from a 21-date tour of Ireland, the Duke is embarking on a solo UK effort taking him through to mid-May. Gone are his trademark gramophones and rag-and-bone man percussion creations: this is stripped-back piano and voice.
Initially inspired by vaudeville, Duke Special (born Peter Wilson) has emerged with many strings to his bow from the jauntiest ditty to the darkest gothic ballad. His lyrics are smart and inspired; littered with obscure cultural references and witty comments on life. With clean vocals and a distinctive Belfast lilt, it is easy to become entranced by Duke.
He opens with the raucous ‘Elephant Graveyard’, the first single from his latest album ‘Look Out Machines!’ The crowd is visibly roused from their support act-induced coma as he attacks the piano, waist-length dreadlocks and chaotic lights tumbling across his face. A dramatic change of pace leads into the softer ‘Something Might Happen’, followed by a touch of comedy in the form of Magnetic Fields’ ‘Andrew in Drag’. “So stick him in a dress and he’s the only boy I’d shag”, he croons to impeccable comic effect. The crowd are in stitches.
It is an intimate and cosy affair; audience participation to the chorus of ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ is more Irish pub singalong than your average gig crowd caterwauling. Duke retains a charmingly casual repartee with the audience throughout, waving away a rare slipped note with “Puberty kicking in there!”, and suggesting at one point that someone might bring him more beer. Announcing mid-set that he’s desperate for the toilet he leaps off stage into the main room, returning to fulfil a request from a gentleman he just encountered.
With a few old classics thrown in for the die-hard fans, there was a disappointingly limp rendition of ‘Freewheel’ during the encore. However, with such unforgettable belters as ‘Apple Jack’ and ‘Son of a Left Hand’ delivered with boundless energy and drama, there was little to dislike about this gig. Perhaps it is Duke’s penchant for exploring new territories, unconstrained by earlier styles, which has kept him from the attention he deserves. But for fans of the unconventional and eclectic, it is time to sit up and take note.