Norwich Arts Centre, Saturday 31st May 2008 concert review by Ruth Saint.
The stage was set - an old gramophone, an orchestral bass drum on its side and a piano, on which sits a little black grand piano music box, twinkling tea lights and a shiny trumpet. I'd heard all the quotes about his vaudeville style and was keen to find out exactly what the rave reviews meant in reality. Having seen him briefly at The Rising at Greenbelt last year I had missed Duke Special's mainstage show but had bought his 'Songs From The Deep Forest' album and had fallen in love with every song. So for me this was a personal pilgrimage to see the man whose songs had pulled this hurting soul through a difficult year. His opening number featuring the chorus "hanging on by the seat of my pants" was very fitting.
Far from being a "solo" tour Duke expected and got full audience participation, handing out song sheets - a humorous touch since we had all "gathered together" in an old church building. From that moment the crowd were visibly warmed to this eccentric communicator. Before long the girls were singing their bits and the guys were mumbling theirs while Duke encouraged our endeavours in that unique way only parents do, with that look of "that's lovely dear!"
Duke got through a great many songs, playing new tunes as well as old favourites. Wonderfully eclectic in nature, his set included "John Lennon Love", "Diggin' An Early Grave", "I'm Gonna Love You Til You Love Me Back", the beautiful "Freewheel" and we all joined in on the "no's" on "Our Love Goes Deeper Than This". The music box came out to play for one number; the tiny dancing ballerina focusing the sadness of this love song. One minute Duke can be marching around the crowd, cymbals crashing, the next he is at the piano wearing his heart on his sleeve and then ups the rhythm with songs like "Everybody Wants A Little Something". Old black and white movie excerpts were projected onto the drum to accompany some of the songs and along with the excellent lighting skills, this all worked together to create an old fashioned echo of a time long gone. But make no mistake, our singing troubadour is very much a 21st century hero. His eyes were framed by kohl eyeliner and his dreadlocks thrashed about wildly when he pounded his piano keys through energetic workout.
Duke has such a quirky stage presence, his strong Northern Irish vocals are enchanting and the way his songs slip back and forth through time, from the silent movie era to the present makes me think that if someone were to dream up Dr Who: The Musical, I could think of no better artist for the role. Now there's a thought!The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.