Belfast’s Empire Music Hall has become something of a second home for dreadlocked showman Duke Special. It’s old time vaudevillian feel lends itself beautifully to the music and the jarring juxtaposition of ancient yellowed posters of ancient entertainers and shimmering mirrorball is mirrored by tonight’s performance.
The Duke has a knack for uncovering the eccentric in not only his own work but in the choice of support acts and this evening we’re treated to a downright bizarre set from Belfast harpist Ursula Burns. While her songs talk of wanting to rock out on the harp and only being in the game for the money, it’s clear there is a huge respect for her art and the turn of phrase and dazzling musical accompaniment is something rather beautiful. The lapses into South American accents and wild eyed enthusiasm only adds to the effect. Ursula Burns is music hall entertainment at its finest.
The evening’s proceedings have been sponsored by BT as part of their latest advertising campaign which features Duke Special’s ‘Sweet Sweet Kisses’ and the band are welcomed on stage by a rather uncomfortable looking ‘suit’ from some PR or marketing department. Frontman Peter Wilson is joined by a gang of dapper gentlemen tonight including stalwarts Ben Castle and Chip Bailey and a welcome return home for the Wilkinson brothers on drums and guitar.
Before a note is struck, there’s a drunken call for ‘Sweet Sweet Kisses’ which Duke obliges. It’s that kind of show. Interaction between performer and punter is fluid, we’re joining in with songs we know and love and the band are revelling in it. Chip and Ben, conduct the massed choir during ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ and ‘Our Love Goes Deeper Than This’. ‘Darling of the Jockey Club’ is slowed a little, ‘No Cover Up’ accelerates into almost double time, Ivor Cutler covers nestle next to a name check for Chaka Khan. There’s a notable absence of ‘Freewheel’ from the setlist as we’re taken on a much more introspective end to the set.
Swigging from a beer, Duke warns of the evils of alcohol and pours his heart out through impassioned renditions of ‘Why Does Anybody Love’ and the stunning ‘Condition’. It’s in some ways a deeply personal show and yet shared with us like we’ve all come through the same wars. We’re all broken, embittered, fucked up souls; all on a journey together somewhere. All off to the next Duke Special show in a few months time when he’ll be joined by General Fiasco.