Bennigan’s Bar in Derry serves as the perfect venue for an intimate gig and that was just what Belfast born balladeer, Duke Special, was set to do on Friday night. Although the crowd was set-up to expect a totally warm and soft intimacy from the very start with a toned down piano and voice rendition of Duke’s ‘Freewheel’, there was a quick shift between atmosphere when his hand slamming on the keys brought the Bertolt Brecht cover of ‘Alabama Song’ forcefully to the ears of the audience. No one seemed to be taken aback as I was.
Being one of the few between my peers that had not seen Duke Special perform in the past, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the night. Least of all, from what was advertised as an ‘intimate’ show, I certainly wasn’t expecting the eccentricities that thread through each song. From cassette tape sampling to walking (almost marching) in front of the audience while smashing crash cymbals together (after which he casually stated to the audience, “it’s cheaper than therapy”). Simply, with just three songs, any simple expectations of the night were destroyed. Magnificently. If an artist can take an intimate and atmospheric venue, turn it upside down and still not seem out of place, the artist has merited a certain degree of respect – most especially from the receptive audience that was present.
Between most tracks there were usually anecdotal and historical explanations of the song about to be played. Like almost anywhere else in Ireland, Derry is quite the place for hecklers and those just looking for a bit of banter with the performer. Never seeming intrusive to the show itself, there was quite a bit of ‘back and forward’ between audience and performer here which only helped to keep quite a comfortable atmosphere with everyone.
Everyone likes a bit of self-deprecation – at least listening to others come out with it. Duke was filled with it between tracks gaining laughs pretty consistently. This helped on his odd form of dark humour and satire, most evident on ‘Hand of Man’, the tone of his voice itself stating clearly that the ideals and ambitions of man were pretty much doomed in industrial America and afterwards – the American dream in general is alluded to here (as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World).
Another one (and a half) cover songs were thrown out before and between touching on new material. Consisting of a once again ‘intimate’ sounding cover of Henry Nillson’s ‘One (is the loneliest number)’ and what sounded like a very promising cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Sticking With You’, which ended after about a minute.
The first of the new material for Duke to perform was the single he released last week, ‘Elephant Graveyard’, which hints toward a darker progression for the musician. From then onward, the music seemed to hold a certain theme of darkness, albeit, almost circus-like at times.
One of the best moments of Duke working up the crowd between songs was toward the end, speaking, of course, about the NI arts cuts which could be summed up simply in a quote of his own talking about “so much money going into fucking nonsense” (sorry kids). Of course, I’m sure TTA readers have signed the petition for the arts in question.
The final two tracks of the night were something special for the audience. The synthesised and floor tom-driven track ‘Son of the Left Hand’ brought forward the darkest atmosphere of the night and certainly the most impressive. As soon as the synthesised drums and accompanied verse came in – the crowd instantly silenced themselves. The heavy tom sound, played by Duke himself while he was singing, simply permeated the crowd. From his upcoming record, it shows a lot to be expected of the album.
The final song played, ‘Salvation Tambourine’ had the entire bar singing along with Duke. Especially when Duke had seemingly forgot the words at one stage and handed the mic to a guy in the crowd. Rather than seeming unprofessional, it made the night more special as the entire crowd helped keep time until the piano went into the usual groove of the chorus.
I’ve never seen a show like it in Bennigan’s, but hopefully this is just a sign of the greatness to come with the new ownership. Gerard Ryan