A bitterly cold Saturday evening in February, and the crowds file in to the warm embrace of the Empire Music Hall in Belfast, buoyed by promises of nostalgic themed words and melodies courtesy of Northern Ireland’s own Peter Wilson aka Duke Special.
He takes to the stage to personally introduce his support act – something that few headliners have the courtesy to do – reminding us that he’s in charge, that this is his choice, that the show has already begun.
Blue Rose Code is the performing name of Edinburgh-born Ross Wilson (presumably no relation), a singer with a warm and powerful tone to his voice, and a light finger picking guitar style. As he thuds the strings with his palms his voice betrays a life lived – coloured by experience that is effortlessly channelled. Between songs inspired by Robert Frost, Robert Burns and his ex-wife, his on-stage presence is friendly, affable, and grateful. Wilson is due to return to Belfast’s Black Box on 28th May with his own tour – check him out then if you can.
On stage sits an electric piano, a huge double bass sits recumbent at the back, and to stage right, atop a tall table sits an antique gramophone, glistening in the stage light. The Duke walks on from the rear, winds up the gramophone and places the needle on the shellac and a warm crackle fills the room from the speakers.
When Wilson was introducing Blue Rose Code, he stood, like a schoolboy beseeching a teacher, his hands held together in front of him – there’s something wonderfully humble and awkward in these moments – in his dapper earthy-coloured bohemian suit. But once he’s behind the keyboard, Peter Wilson vanishes and The Duke comes to life, filled with confidence and power and range. His fingers work the ivory substitutes and the keyboard rocks with the force of the playing. Now a man approaching the end of his fifth decade, his eye-linered face is now wrapped in a greying beard, while his iconic dreads spread their tendrils across the microphone like snakes on the loose.
The Empire Music Hall is a perfect venue for the Duke Special show, drawing as heavily as it does on themes of Victoriana, whimsy, nostalgia and a hint of variety. The set moves between beautiful ballads, morose musings, and jaunty jigs. For the most part this is a solo set, with just the man and his piano, with occasional support from the gramophone. And it works well – this is a performer of supreme confidence, with carefully crafted stories to share. For a selection of numbers he is supported by bassist Conor McCreanor, and some additional vocals by Stephen Macartney and Rachel McCarthy.
There are old favourites like “Ballad of a Broken Man”, “Last Night I Nearly Died (But I Woke Up Just In Time)”, “Rita de Accosta” and “Diggin’ An Early Grave” alongside recent numbers including a taste of a forthcoming Huckleberry Finn musical, and those from his latest album Hallow, inspired by the poems of Michael Longley – “Brothers”, “Emily Dickinson”, “Lena”, and “Grace Darling” among others. For the most part these new songs are pointedly nostalgic and sentimental – both Michael Longley and his wife Edna were in attendance, and Wilson frequently looks to Longley, almost as if looking for approval. From my own spot beside the Longleys I could see that that approval was given.
A number of the songs tell the stories of strong forgotten women, a welcome thread bereft of the misogyny and artificial adulation so common in music. There are stories of families, love letters to dead dogs, and an active discourse with death and religion and our wee country.
For the encore, Wilson is joined by trad musicians Ulaid, who recently completed a cycle of songs together. Teased throughout the set (“Shipyards of Belfast“, “On Account of My Dog Fido“), this is a powerful combo and the dual Gaelic/English Lon “Dubh Loch Lao” strikes not just as a beautiful homage to the history of Belfast but as a pointed political anthem embracing cultural history and fusion.
It’s an affectionate and appreciative audience that applaud the emptying of the stage to the sound of a crackling gramophone record, and its easy to see why Duke Special has earned himself such affection in these parts – the onstage performer seems to mask a humble, accessible, outsider – a man as hard to define as most in the country, and a stark relief to the binary expectations thrust on us by our broken government. He brings the past to the present with relevance and joy.