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The Barfly, Liverpool 6 February 2007

Quite a bit has happened to the musical career of Duke Special since I saw him perform live in Wrexham last May. That show attracted little more than 20-odd die-hards and the souvenirs comprised of little more than a couple of EPs, a boxed set of vinyls and one or two egg whisks and cheese graters.

He's since made a new album, Songs From The Deep Forest and he's released Freewheel as a single from it. Freewheel was released this week and it is getting regular airplay on BBC Radio 2.

Bears are featured on the sleeve notes of his album, the cover of the single & video and also the ‘Duke Special on Tour' T-shirts.

The original version of Teddy Bears Picnic announced the bands pending arrival on to the stage. The concert hall at the Barfly became the bear pit as a crowd of about 250+ welcomed Duke and his band to Liverpool with a great big hug.

Apart from sharing a tour with The Divine Comedy, airplay on BBC R2 for that last fortnight and a couple of minutes with Billy Butler on BBC Radio Merseyside earlier in the day, there has been little else, other than word of mouth and the internet, to explain the reason for this ten-fold increase in audience figures.

And as he sang the Brixton Leaves to open the show, any malingering thoughts about the audience's authenticity soon evaporated when they cheered as one to the line where Belfast was mentioned. As the applause eventually grew quiet at the closing of the song to make way for Duke to speak, he said “Hello Liverpool” in a somewhat surprised tone, “ Where did you all come from ?”

When you've witnessed someone come from humble beginnings as a support act and followed him to this point some three years later, it makes you feel that both audience and artiste are in this together. It promised to be, and it proved to be, one glorious night.

I didn't make a note of the setlist, but tracks from Songs from the Deep Forest accounted for most of the show which included a few favourites from previous tours. Wake Up Scarlett, Freewheel, and Last Night I Nearly Died are taking on an anthemic aura.

On stage Duke (piano and accordion) is accompanied by, The Temperance Society Chip Bailey (percussion) and two others whose names I didn't catch. If the instrumentalists match the album sleeve notes, they are Ben Castle (clarinet, saxophone & synth) and Paul Wilkinson (bass & guitar). The latter two played well as straight-forward out-and-out quality musicians. Duke, apart the odd first-night-on-tour lyrical slip-ups, was excellent, of course.

But the visual delight was Chip Bailey. He makes Animal off the Muppets look as boring as a politician. One moment his arms are waving about like windmill sails clattering everything in sight, next moment totally disinterested, next moment poised for a dab on a cymbal like a cat ready to pounce. Add to that the array of items he makes use of besides the drumkit – stompf fiddle, egg whisk & cheese grater and goats toenails to name but a few, then you'll appreciate that descriptive words will never match the visual.

If there were any complaints, it had to be that there were no seats and an obstructed view. One or two of the elder members of the audience would have put a bench or two around the perifory to welcome use. However, the lack of such facilities encouraged a spot of dancing now and again.

Liverpool was the first port of call on the Songs From The Deep Forest album tour. Catch him live on this one if you can, while the tickets are cheap – next tour might see him in the big arenas !

Review by Graham Ashmore

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