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Royal variety show
A two-night residency at Empire Music hall will see Duke Special journey into uncharted sonic waters.
Colin Carberry, 28 Oct 2005
Peter Wilson – Duke Special, to the wider world – wants to be thought of as an ideal host. This year’s Festival at Queen’s will see the Belfast born singer given free run of the Empire Music Hall for an unprecedented two night stint. By the end of it, he’d like to be known as someone who can rustle up a hell of a shindig.
You would expect someone at this juncture of their career – a few weeks after the launch of their first album, preparing for their biggest ever national headline tour – to have enough on their plate. However, Wilson’s looking forward to the two-night stint with nothing but hungry relish.
“It’s gonna be brilliant. I can’t wait,” he grins. “The last show I headlined in Belfast in February was at The Empire and it sold out. I sort of wondered where we would we go from there, and the idea was put forward that we try a two night residency, invite along performers that I like, try to make it a bit of occasion. "We approached the Festival people at Queen’s and they liked the sound of it. So, from there it’s been all systems go, trying to come up with a great bill that people are really gonna love.”
Duke Special and The Empire make for a spectacularly well-matched marriage. In one corner is the baroque, out-of-time old venue, in the other a musician noted as much for his visually arresting, on-stage, theatrics as for the arcane bent of much of his material. If you’ve never seen Wilson and his band, here’s the ideal opportunity to catch them in their natural habitat.
“I love the place,” he admits. “It’s the only venue in Belfast I can imagine playing, apart from The Grand Opera House.
The venue encourages Duke Special to emphasis the vaudeville in his performance. “When I tried to play the newer songs that I’d started to write, because I’d been using odd instrumentation, it sort of brought out that whole vaudeville side very naturally. So, it wasn’t contrived.”
The goal, always, is to confound expectations, he says. “When me and the band come out – all dressed up – people look at us and expect some kind of crazy metal act. Once we start playing they’re like ‘those are songs from a musical’. I love that.”
Chances are that Duke Special attracts a much more informed bunch now than in days of old. Word of mouth has seen his live appearances sell out with increasing regularity, while high profile support slots with the likes of Rufus Wainwright have given him an opportunity to make introductions well beyond his core audience. Most importantly, however, was the summer release of Adventures In Gramophone, a collection of his two previous EPs, which served as a handy come-follow-me to newcomers.
Mixing lovely, low-key melodies, with strange, arresting acoustics, this was a (mostly) successful attempt to reclaim the piano from cheesy, ersatz wasters (hello Keane).
“I can churn those big piano ballads out in my sleep,” he states. “I’m from a church and gospel background, so it would be very easy for me to do that, very natural. But I don’t want to go down that insipid balladry route. I want my music to have a bit of rock and roll about it – for it to be honest and a bit brutal even. I want to engage an audience, demand their attention.”
This extends to singing in his own accent or writing about places in his locality. There’s an art to illusion. Just don’t expect Duke Special to show you behind the curtain.
Adventures In Gramophone is out now.