Duke Special (+ Boxes) at The Musician, Leicester (5th Mar.)
Athlete bass player, Carey Willetts in his solo guise of Boxes, provides support for the evening. He’s essentially a modern version of the one-man band, setting and triggering sundry live loops that accompany his strong vocal and guitar.
The be-cardiganed Willetts kicked off with the joystick-tempo led and bass accompanied, “Throw Your Stones” to a receptive audience. He continued to prove himself as a skilled looper, tapping into his laptop, sampling his keyboard and utilising a host of pedals to fill all available space. Some of the vocal harmonies worked well though some sounds came close (intentionally?) to retro arcade games and an occasional whiff of Hall & Oates! He shares an affinity with David Gray (including that head shake) and KT Tunstall (queen of the loop station) and as such may have missed the commercial boat.
For those not in the know Duke Special is the nom de plume of Belfast based singer-songwriter, Peter Wilson. He performs on piano and previous live performances have included gramophones and atypical instrumentation (egg whisks, shruti box and Stumpf fiddle). For this tour he’s solo. He has a striking and unique appearance – with Robert Smith-esque eye-liner, traveller dreads and charity shop dandy threads – which all add to the theatre. It’s probable this colourful character helps encourage an audience crossing the generational divide to attend.
His powerful piano ballad “Spiritual America” sets a high music hall standard from the outset and introduces the personable chap with the full Irish brogue. Taken from 2011’s “Under the Dark Cloth” Duke takes the opportunity of a brief interlude to deliver an insightful and humorous story about the songs being the result of a request from the Department of Photography of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to write music inspired by the art of photography pioneers including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. One such song (co-written with Boo Hewerdine) was based on a photograph entitled Mrs. Philip Lydig – which after internet research turned out to have had the maiden name “Rita De Acosta” (a much more poetic choice), and then onto the second number.
And so the format for the evening of song / anecdote / story / song commences and stylistically, at various points, draws close to Rufus Wainwright and Badly Drawn Boy.
Seemingly conscious not to get stuck in a thematic rut the subjects covered swerve quite wildly. There’s the Adam and Eve-come-alcoholic metaphor “Apple Jack” – to which the audience are invited to participate by singing from the quickly circulated song sheets, the vibrato heavy, Ivor Cutler cover of “I’ve Worn My Elbows Down To the Bone For You” and back to the theatrics and music hall with “Portrait.“
For the remainder of the evening the tunes combine humour, philosophy, humanitarian metaphor, an absolute ability to conjure the heightened tone (drawing an evil villain with ease) from the piano and rigorous audience inclusion. Pulling tunes from most recent LP “Oh Pioneer” ("How I Learned to Love the Sun" and the contradiction-full “Condition”) as well as digging deep into his back catalogue as far back as debut “Adventures in Gramophone” for “Freewheel” and “Wake Up Scarlett”
After a good hour the show closes but is soon reprised with an audience accompanied “Digging An Early Grave” and then its into the crowd, with support act, Boxes for a totally unplugged “Red Sky” close. A truly entertaining evening