The Empire Music Hall stage is made for Duke Special. It looks exactly right, his vaudeville costume dress and the Music Hall drama of the stage; perfect. Duke Special is made for Belfast. Oh, Yeah, (see what I did there!) he has the brilliance for any stage, in any city, BUT when the boy comes home there is something extra special in the ether. Yes, there are the fans who have been following him since Booley House days and before, but there is also a sense of place. Duke’s songs are informed by this city, its people, its politics, and its faith . What I am trying to say is that of all the places in all the world this is the bar that Duke Special needs to be on a stage in! It is why Duke Special did a 5 day residency here a few years ago and why he has 6 Empire concerts in the planning for 2013. It is why I was aware throughout this gig that this was a precious piece of rock theatre and live performance.
Those 5 gigs a few years ago all had different themes and so the series that Duke embarked on with this concert was a run through his entire debut album Songs From The Deep Forest, adding a few songs from the eps recorded around that time. As the night went on you felt that you were listening to a hit after hit. Every song received a loud cheer of recognition, familiarity and love from this home town crowd. What a writer this guys is? What an album Songs From The Deep Forest is? Again, why I sensed this was a special night was that it will not be many times that Duke Special does this suite of songs and the fact that tonight’s trio on stage have played these songs for seven years was making tonight’s version more definitive than those released in 2006. The other two in the trio are important to the importance of tonight too. Ben Castle’s saxophones and Chip Bailey’s percussion are always way more than just musical accompaniment. These two guys have personality to burn and their playing or the shapes they throw can shifts moods and atmosphere. They can ham up the humour and they can charge the moments of emotional intensity. So comfortable are the together that you, and maybe they, are not sure what they have the spontaneous ability to do next. Don’t take your eyes off them. More so, of course, his Dukeness. The dreads, longer than ever, drop around his face. The voice rises and falls, nuanced in every syllable. The songs are, as I have said, hits or should have been. The sound was as near perfect as a live gig can be and in The Empire, that can be noisy, there was almost hushed full attention.
Subjectively, a couple of songs made me particularly envious. As a preacher by trade I wondered on the journey home how I could do spiritually what Duke did in Brixton Leaves and Freewheel. Brixton Leaves is a melancholy song of loneliness but tonight it’s hopefulness struck me hard, or maybe tenderly! Perhaps it was his bringing into it the Belfast flags issue but that wasn’t primarily where I needed hope. Those lines, “But the sun will rise once more... Well, it better/The sun will rise once more... If we let her,” lifted my fraying soul and also reminded me of my part in the hopefulness... “if we let her!” It was a tangible spiritual epiphany when I needed it most. Speaking of soul and spiritual, Freewheel tonight took us to what fellow East Belfast songwriter Van Morrison found up on Cypress Avenue. As Duke did a spoken word ad lib he brought us all to the transcendence of the moment. It was what I described earlier. A concert of special place and time. Songs touching us like companions on the road to looking for “all the colours at our fingertips!” Phew!
I left, back up Botanic Avenue, with a freewheeling spring in my step. I stepped out of my world for just over an hour and was refreshed by honesty, pilgrimage and wonder. Songs had spiritually revived me and I smiled because The Empire Music Hall used to be a Presbyterian Church... and the angels grin too!