Dreadlocked hair tied up in a knot. Heavy eyeliner. Military outfits. Pots and pans in the place of traditional percussion instruments. These are all staples of the Duke Special set-up, and it could easily appear contrived and self-consciously quirky. To an extent, it probably is: this look doesn’t come together by accident. But the success of Duke Special (whose real name is the rather more mundane Peter Wilson) is to overcome all of the tricks and gimmickry to deliver a live performance that is sincere and special - without ever losing the fun and light-heartedness inherent in having a wide array of kitchenalia on stage.
Duke Special may not be a household name, but in the unique surroundings of Camden’s Proud Galleries with its vaulted stable ceiling and cobbled floor, he was greeted with the warmest of cheers. And he reciprocates that warmth in his performance: Duke, despite his considered look, clearly has no interest in being cool and stand-offish. Instead, he sings his piano-led songs, which range from quiet, disarmingly simple ballads to rollicking music hall-style anthems, as if to individual members of the audience.
In fact, Duke seems incredibly keen to break down the barrier between artist and fan as much as possible, not just through the usual means of chatting between songs or inviting the audience to join in when they know the words, but by actually getting in amongst them. For a song about a silent actor who went missing during the transition to talkies (Duke likes to explore more interesting themes than the usual love and angst), he gets an upright piano wheeled into the audience, asks those around him to sit down, and sings without a microphone. It’s an intimate, unexpected moment, and the excited glances darting around the room show that Duke’s unusual move has more than paid off.
With backing provided by the eccentric percussionist Chip Bailey (who also goes under a pseudonym, “Temperance Society”) and the odd carefully chosen vinyl record, Duke navigates his way through a set which includes songs about irritating artists, copious heartbreak and, in a trilogy of associated tracks, death. Just like the similarly gregarious and unique singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, Duke has a hugely expressive voice – his strong Irish lilt pervades every line - and he lives each word with his large eyes, putting on a vaudeville act at times, and clearly exposing true emotion at others. The ballads may be beautiful, but it’s certainly the rousing singalong tracks such as Portrait and Sweet Sweet Kisses which really capture the imagination, and prove Duke to be a talented all-round entertainer.
For the encore, Duke goes back into the audience for more mic-less tracks, including a couple of covers and “Our Love Goes Deeper Than This” which features fellow Irish wordsmith, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. Bathed in the glow of lighted candles – and surrounded by broad smiles on the faces of a satisfied audience - he conducts a Victorian drinking song. This might seem odd anywhere else, but here, it just fits, and that ability to make the odd and the bizarre so joyous, comforting even, is Duke Special’s greatest gift.