@ The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
“Love is hard to do”, sings the Duke, with an Irish elongation to the doooo. Half the audience’s hearts declare him wrong and the front row drool slowly on the floor. He’s got a winning way, Mr. Special. “Our story works / as long as you / don’t settle for the best / choose me above the rest”. And a way with words.
The Brudenell is nicely full and there is a sense of devotion and good humour as The Duke and Chip Bailey (dubbed Temperance Bailey for the evening, thanks to his Sgt Peppers jacket) do their thing on piano and percussion – not a guitar in sight. That’s not the only unusual thing – Chip manages to avoid playing rock or pop drums all night, favouring splashy bandstand, jazz or bashing his rhythm stick (a one man band on a stick). He’s an accompanist rather than a motive force and it makes for a refreshing change. A Duke Special gig is not a normal event, Duke is a classicist, a style hopper and a balladeer. He seems able to write to order – thinking of a style and composing to it and those styles range from twenties tin pan alley, through cabaret to modern pop ballad.
Tonight he opens with Applejack – a warning about the devil that lives in alcohol – and moves on to a ballad – “last night I nearly died”. On realising the crowd are in his hands, he stops singing and conducts them in the refrain. Spending most of the night behind a piano, he goes for some theatrics, running a wind-up gramophone or standing up to pound the keys and finally going for a wander through the crowd. A lengthy preamble about Jedward shows a generosity of spirit before his song about Pop Idol, I Don’t Love You. The one duff note for me is the over-obvious Coldplay-style ballad, I Don’t Wanna Lose This but, in a two hour set, I can cope with that. He freestyles next, breaking into an improvised rap about Amy Winehouse in the next song, throwing in the cracking line; “come on our souls”….. I Let You Down could have been written in Tin Pan Alley, harking back to another era of pop – lighthearted but Chip’s thrashing cymbals are giving the protagonist an internal beating. The evening is all about songs, not spectacle, big on wordplay and dramatics.
Before long it’s the set-ending crowdpleaser, Digging An Early Grave and a deliberately slow, stumbling and awkward Love Will Tear Us Apart. He’s spent the pre-set period by the merch stall, watching the support bands and chatting. A very approachable and polite gent, he invites the two support bands on stage to finish off with You Are My Sunshine, sending us home singing. An evening with Duke Special is an opportunity to take a breather from the rock machine and revisit the essentials of songwriting and audience engagement.