Duke Special knows something most of us don’t know. He knows how to make his audience’s sides ache with laughter one minute and choke them up the next. He knows how to find the balance between the past and the future. He knows what songs are meant to remain album tracks and which ones come to life on stage. He knows how important a sense of humour is, even when you’ve got something very serious to say. He knows that there’s talent right here in good ole Eire and that the right mix of people can make something truly special. He knows how to bring Irish music to world standard, and hot to remind us of all that we have accomplished culturally as a fairly tiny nation. The guy knows how to put on a fantastic show.
The first time I saw the Duke (aka Peter Wilson) live, it was at three o’clock in the afternoon in Cyprus Avenue. It was an all-ages matinee show. One woman waiting outside said she was going to come back for the evening show five hours later. I remember thinking ‘Gawwd he can’t be that good, like’. Wull wull wull. I still maintain that that gig was a turning point in my life, creatively at least. It was the most chilling, beautiful and downright entertaining thing I had seen in all my sixteen years. So yeah, expectations were high for this evening with Duke and the RTE Concert Orchestra two years later. It was a show of two halves; firstly, the music of Ruby Murray, the Belfast balladeer, followed by a set of Duke’s own songs.
Like a lot of people, I’d never heard of Ruby Murray until I saw that Duke Special had made a documentary about her. It turns out that when he was asked to make it, he knew pretty much nothing about her other than she was from Belfast and she did all right for herself with a couple of nice songs and lived happily ever after. None of that is strictly true, though. Ruby moved to England and made a name for herself on the stage. She was in the right place at the right time as television arrived in 1955, and her voice reached a bigger audience than she could have even contemplated before. Her record for the most record sales was unmatched until only two years ago after the death of Michael Jackson rocketed his almost all his albums simultaneously into the charts. Ruby was as famous as you could get in those days, but she didn’t want fame. She just loved to sing. But she also loved to drink. Unfortunately, the year her success reached its height also saw the arrival of Bill Haley and His Comets, and the world of crooners and Silly Love Songs was turned on its head. She died in 1996, an alcoholic, her stardom all but forgotten.
2010: enter Duke Special. With an endearing pride in his Belfast roots and a love of all things beautiful and mysterious, he goes on a journey to champion Ruby’s music and remind people why simple, sweet but good songs will always speak to people.
The show opened with a nice upbeat number. ‘Dancing’ David Brophy conducted the orchestra on stage. It was odd observing him doing what he does from the audience. Weird how I didn’t think anything of his goofiness when I was one of the lucky people being conducted by him. The inimitable Chip Bailey and Classy Clarinet Guy were up there with the fancy pants musicians, adding Duke’s unique twist to the whole affair. The man himself sang the first few songs standing, a little awkward and not as exuberant as I had expected. He soon got into the spirit of things though, and by the time the evening was drawing to a close, he decided to do the opening number again – he wanted to ‘nail it’ this time.
He was joined by guests May Kay of Fight Like Apes and Mary Coughlan. May Kay was not what I had expected, her husky voice bringing a lovely coy, unpolished but sweet quality to Ruby’s songs. In the second half of the show, consisting mainly of Duke’s own songs, Mary Coughlan sang with him for a gorgeous, sweeping rendition of ‘Why Does Anybody Love?’. May Kay was the Dusty Springfield to Duke’s Randy Newman, which he introduced by saying ‘There’s no point in doing any old shit, I suppose’, to which he added a nervous laugh. Throughout the evening he stood at the microphone like an anxious schoolboy, tugging at one side of his top and fiddling with his magnificent dreadlocks. When it came to singing his own material, he was a little more at ease, putting actions to the words and injecting brilliant expression and sarcastic tones into his lyrics. As if an incredible lyrical ability wasn’t enough, Duke Special marries these songs and the mood swings within them to wonderful Elfman-esque, soaring orchestra parts. Most captivating, though, is the way the bridge or the end of a song will break down, leaving our leading man repeating a phrase or a single word, as the piano dwindles along with him. Haunting.
By the end of the show he had already brought the house to its feet three or four times. As I looked around, I saw people starting to dance in their seats, then suddenly remembering they were in the Opera House and stopping. But just like a simple, four-chord love song that moves people to tears even sixty years after its composition, the fact they forgot themselves, even for a second, says a lot.
"People just really love music, don't they?" Guess so.