Duke Special’s warm up acts are often a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Last night’s show at Belfast’s St George’s Market was no exception. Tim Minchin’s Perrier Award winning musical comedy offered perfectly pitched humour, including his ‘Palestine peace anthem’; sample lyric, ‘You don’t eat pigs. We don’t eat pigs. Let’s all not eat pigs together’. In contrast, Minchin had been preceded by an effeminate young man whose act had consisted exclusively of singing songs in an odd voice. Which was sublime and which ridiculous I’ll let the reader decide.
None of last night’s acts were as bad as the guy who’d been chucked out of Snow Patrol (how bad do you have to be?!), who regaled the Duke’s audience with his whinging in the Grand Opera House last year. However much the Opera House crowd’s patience is tried, it remains scrupulously attentive. For much of Duke’s show last night the St George’s Market audience did not extend the performer the same courtesy. Whether it could be ascribed to the venue, large and drafty with various food and drink stalls around the perimeter, or whether a large proportion of the patrons were on a pre- Xmas jolly, there was a constant dull roar of conversation which became particularly noticeable during the quieter numbers.
Duke Special was consequently required to work hard in order to turn this gig into the celebratory occasion which it became. Again, the nature of the venue required a bigger sound than his band is accustomed to producing. Hardcore fans might bemoan the loss of subtlety which was a corollary of Duke’s thumping rhythm section, but it was this unit’s stridency which carried his sound to the back of the hall and eventually wrested back the attention of the conversers. It wasn’t a night for fragile ballads, which became lost in the hubbub, but Duke’s latest album has added a range of anthemic crowd participation numbers to his considerable oeuvre.
It was therefore the gothic Victoriana of ‘Diggin’ an Early Grave’ and ‘Flesh and Blood Dance’ which saw the fans transformed into a genuine Duke Special audience. ‘Let Me Go, Please, Please, Please’ witnessed a stomp along and the old favourites ‘Salvation Tambourine’ and ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ had St George’s Market roaring approval.
By the time he delivered a prolonged encore, the performer had the Belfast fans eating out of his hand. He delivered a tender song with a local theme, ‘Orangefield’ and enjoyed full attention for an epic acoustic version of ‘Freewheel’. The Specials' ‘Ghost Town’ assumed a vaudeville twist and the call and response of ‘Our Love Goes Deeper Than This’ became a homecoming celebration.
The Duke commented during the show that playing a large venue with a friendly crowd was a luxury after supporting the album in difficult little toilets throughout Britain and Europe. Some of those difficult little gigs may have offered a more intimate environment, but the performer showed that he can command a larger venue. Albeit at times it was a struggle.