Duke Special - The Glee Club, Birmingham
Allow me a quick word on Bitter Ruin, one of the more perplexing support acts I’ve witnessed in recent times. Hailing from Brighton (where else?!), the duo’s component parts of Ben Richards and Georgia Train demand attention but are inevitably an act the listener will either reject or fall madly, deeply, obsessively in love with. Underpinned by the classically-trained guitar skills of Richards, which inflect more than one song with a dramatic Spanish flair, the pair share vocal duties although it is Train’s freewheeling performance that will decide which side of the fence you occupy. During tales of ghosts and lovers’ showdowns, her voice occupies spaces as varied as velvety whisper, emotive belting and histrionics Kate Bush might deem a tad too ‘out-there’. Add in an element of performance art, and your decision is close to being made for you. However, I couldn’t help but be charmed by their amiable between-song banter and, y’know, fair play to them for sticking to their convictions. If I haven’t made you the least bit curious, then Stephen Fry’s a fan if you follow the Twitter King’s word as gospel.
Now, to the night’s main attraction… No stranger to Birmingham’s beloved Glee Club, Duke Special, aka Peter Wilson, is welcomed onstage like an old friend. Looking like a dreadlocked, ‘hobo-chic’ spin on Tim Minchin, he is joined by drummer/percussionist Chip Bailey for this special ‘duo’ show. All that anyone unfamiliar with Sir Duke needs to know is that this piano-playing troubadour may look like any other Belfast busker but, if Disney ever write an Irish prince, he should get the job. Over a series of albums, each one more accomplished than the last, Wilson has attached his pure, rich vocals to a series of lush piano ballads.
In a live setting, the dynamism and craft of his work really shines through. Aided by Bailey, who cuts a fun and slightly crazed figure as he bangs and wallops his drums and various percussive trinkets, Wilson simply sits at his piano (occasionally taking a swig of his Guinness) and sings. Although he really only has two modes, torch song slowies and upbeat piano-pop ditties, he’s perfected them both so well that a setlist made up of a prolific body of work keeps the hushed, reverent audience captivated until the end.
Highlights include cuts from 2006’s profile-raising Songs from the Deep Forest, including the sweeping ‘Wake Up Scarlett’ and dramatic ‘Brixton Leaves’, which builds ominously and then blossoms at the advent of its sky-high chorus. More obscure selections raise a smile, including ode-to-alcohol ‘Apple Jack’ and the jaunty foot-tap of ‘Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club’. There’s a loose and lively feel to proceedings throughout, as Wilson invites song suggestions while rifling through the stacks of sheet music atop his piano; at one point, Bailey takes centre stage and performs on-the-spot so the Duke can run backstage to relieve his bladder of the beer he’s been swigging. No-one begrudges the man’s need for an impromptu tinkle however, for he’s such a charming presence when onstage that it’s hard not to be enchanted; he’s chatty yet shy, funny yet self-deprecating, vulnerable yet ready at any moment to throw himself into an ill-advised stage dive upon the seated audience (!).
Of course though, it’s the music that has us locked in our seats, no matter how full our own bladders might be. Sometimes Wilson enlightens us to the origins of some of his songs, regaling us with the history of painter Georgia O’Keeffe or introducing a fan favourite with the tale of the night he nearly died; at other times, as on music hall knees-up ‘Digging An Early Grave’, he leads the audience in a crowd sing-along. However, it’s the ballads that are the showstoppers on this chilly weeknight in Birmingham. Displaying a deft hand at romantic tearjerkers that touches on Rufus Wainwright’s songwriting mastery, Wilson’s pitch-perfect delivery and piano flourishes on ‘Mockingbird’ and an especially humbling ‘Nothing Comes Easy’ are genuinely affecting. Wilson’s vocal control is also to be commended, escaping the ‘musical theatre’ crutches of his more vaudeville moments to exist as an admirable trait of its own, soaring and wonderful quite often but always touched by the down-to-earth charm of his Irish brogue.
Before he bids us adieu, Wilson treats us to a lesson in Cover Versions 101; erasing the bad memories of countless tragic Live Lounge performances, his sparse take on countrymen Ash’s ‘Shining Light’ is a masterful choice and one of those live moments you wish you could bottle up and relive over and over again. One final hurrah presents Bob Dylan’s ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, made famous by Robert Palmer’s 1988 version, as a collaborative effort between himself, Bailey and Bitter Ruin. For all the talented bodies onstage for the finale though, this gig proves that Duke Special is at his most special when it’s down to just one man and his piano.