DUKE SPECIAL is one of those performers who has been around the music circuit for a long, long time but still remains an underground artist. Instead of having an exorbitant fanbase, he has staunch followers who keep one beady eye on announcements for new work and one ear turned towards the radio, hoping for Freewheel to come out of the speakers.
Eager anticipation fills Arts Club tonight as people are craning their necks to see through the wings of the stage. When Duke Special finally fumbles onto the stage, in standard Victorian-cum-hipster attire with dreadlocks falling all over the shop, the opening could be described as inauspicious. The track – Elephant’s Graveyard from new album Look Out Machines! – pays homage to early Placebo, which is an unexpected diversion and perhaps not an altogether welcome one.
Thankfully, things get back on track with No Cover Up, and later Duke takes some classic requests and does a memory-jogging performance of Last Night I Nearly Died. It’s these songs in particular that remind you how good a live proposition Duke is; you don’t just get songs regurgitated from his albums, instead, each one is slightly different from the recorded version.
The theatrical surroundings perfectly reflect the interesting listening tonight and the crowd respond accordingly. Duke always brings something peculiar to the table and this evening is no different when he announces he’s going to perform three covers of songs from surrealist poet Ivor Cutler. I Am Going In A Field makes for a welcome whimsical interlude.
A highlight is his stripped-back version of Freewheel; tearing my eyes from the piano-clad performer, I see people wiping their eyes and it’s understandable. This, perhaps his most famous song, is incredibly moving. More readily recognised as an anthem-sized tune from the Songs From The Deep Forest album, tonight it is gentle, with a sadness that could even have me shed a tear.
Duke is constantly changing the tempo of the evening and follows up the emotion of Freewheel with a cover of Kurt Vile’s Applejack. The various covers which smatter tonight’s set allow us to see from where the Irish troubadour drawers his inspiration – from the quirky performance style of Tim Minchin to the oddness of Kurt Vile and Ivor Cutler. I beseech everyone to take in a Duke Special show. The Placebo influence could perhaps be left out, however.