Monday, 21 May 2012

Duke Special 20/05/12 @ the Wardrobe

The Duke lives up to his name, as he provides something truly special. His talent as a musician is matched by his ability to make the audience feel like a group of friends rather than a host of spectators. Perhaps it's the thick Northern Irish drawl, or his childlike glee as he admits, after the fifth and sixth songs of his encore, that 'This is so much fun'. I think it's his refusal to remain detached from the audience.

When I first saw Duke Special, it wasn't in The Wardrobe but in the watercloset, as he was hurriedly washing his hands to leave and go on stage. Perhaps that's part of the beauty of these smaller venues: no backstage privileges - but the necessity to exist on the same platform as the audience is one which the Duke embraces. After making a modest, unannounced entrance onto the stage and playing his opening song, Duke Special made his way out from behind the security of his piano to address the crowd from centre stage. What followed was a beguiling tale about Rita de Acosta, an American socialite from the early 1900s, on whom the next song was based. These frequent and calm interjections to offer some background to the music were some fine threads of the delicate weave Duke Special spun to enrapture his audience.

No less magnetic than Duke Special himself was his percussionist, Chip Bailey, who found himself surrounded by a myriad of metal and skins - items ranging from a hoop of keys, a spiraling cymbal, hanging sheets of metal and this thing:
A klaxon, bell, minute cajon and what seemed to be a saucepan lid, all attached to a pair of wooden slats. Not to mention the cheese grater he was playing with an egg whisk. Chip's arsenal of instruments appeared to come from the scrapheap challenge of armories, and created the impression that here was a man who could play literally anything the audience could physically chuck at him, and still get a decent sound.

Equally as integral to the inclusive atmosphere, which permeated the performance, was Duke Special's supporting artist - Michele Stodart, of The Magic Numbers. The term 'support' doesn't seem to do justice to the role she fulfilled. Through her gentle story telling, beautifully strong vocals, simple yet complex guitar picking and being the first to coax the audience into offering up their own voices, Michele Stodart set the standard for things to come. She also reappeared during one of the many encore songs to help perform a song the group had only learnt the day before. Knowing that their rendition of this song was still in its infancy, I took that as a promise for mistakes. Somewhere between sharing one scrap of paper in order to read the lyrics, some words were temporarily lost, but this unintentionally comical spectacle itself demonstrated the dynamism of the ensemble. I met Michele briefly at the bar afterwards, and she lightheartedly joked about how she had messed up that song. I wish I'd said to her at the time that that was part of the beauty of live music, and that if I wanted to hear something unchanging and flawless each time, I'd have stayed at home and listened to records.

From easy storytelling, mild-mannered jokes, mad dashes to the toilet before an encore, casually strolling through an audience as their voices carry his lyrics, and partially wrecking the stage as a finale, Duke Special perfectly incorporates the unexpected, the enthralling and the endearing into his performances, encouraging the audience to feel that they were a shared part of the experience, rather than merely witnesses to it.

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