Duke Special : A 30 Minute Exposure

Concert review for Duke Special’s performance supporting Bell X1
on 7 October, 2012 at The Casbah in Durham, North Carolina.
©2012 By Shawn Fitzmaurice and Paddy-Whacked Radio™. 
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Words assembled to capture a moment are common if you read about art and entertainment. Though you may never think of the language describing the abstractness of sound and sight, written review is a creative process in itself; art about art. It would be unusual, however, to dance about charcoal pencil or paint about poetry.

That said, Duke Special has done exactly this kind of genre bending art review in his performance on Sunday night, devoting almost his entire set to songs about photography.

A little research leads me to realize most Duke Special recordings have slipped under my radar.  This includes a CD titled Under the Dark Cloth (2011) from which most of the evening’s songs were taken. The album is influenced by the photographic works of Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. It was written in collaboration with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photography for the 2010 to 2011 exhibit “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand”.

Peter Wilson is the given name of the persona known as Duke Special, a Vaudeville
inspired performer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He strikes an interesting and memorable image: Dreadlocks hang forward, shuttering his eye-lined face while he projects finely crafted lyrical poetry and dynamic piano accompaniment. He captions each song with a spoken story, often humorous and insightful, developing depth to the imagery.

Opening for Irish band Bell X1 (see my 2008 review here) on their 2012 acoustic tour of the United States, the performance in Durham North Carolina’s The Casbah was a perfect setting for this musician to engage and mesmerize an appreciative audience.

The set opened with the delicate piano of a softly voiced “Dancing Trees”. Within, Special muses on Stieglitz’s photograph by the same name, expanding the moment to symbolize the intertwined branches of friendship and love that grow over a lifetime.

He goes on to tell the story of a portrait captured by Edward Steichen, who he describes as “sort of Vogue photographer of his day”.  The beautiful woman in the image was Rita De Acosta who, at the time, was the most photographed woman in America. He humorously describes her series of marriages to rich elderly men who managed to die early on, leaving her their fortunes. She is lamented tragically as a “living work of art” who “never learned to give her heart away”; eventually dying alone, broke and forgotten.

Special goes off topic just once to perform a song called “Applejack”, an entertaining sing along (complete with a printed hand-out) connecting the original apple of Eden to the devilries of the drink. Musically this piece could have come straight from an Old West saloon.

The piano on “Cherry Blossom Girl” transports you to a snowy landscape, perhaps in the way of Joni Mitchell’s “River”, minus the tragedy.  Lyrically it is softly contemplative of a little girl captured in Paul Strand’s photo “Winter, Central Park, New York”. Special brings you to the tender stillness of her happy moment in the snow while reflecting on her oblivion to her future as an image in a museum piece.

The dramatic, rhythmic locomotion of “The Hand Of Man” captures a steam train image by Alfred Stieglitz. In it, Special lyrically places himself as a young man coming from Ireland to work for the railway and further to build America “wherever we can”.  The imagery is gritty and greedy, and paints the unstoppable cadence of the period’s industrial development.

“You Press the Button and We do the Rest” is a humorous look at Stieglitz distaste for what he saw as the dumbing-down of the art of photography upon the availability of the portable Kodak camera. Special conveys the photographer’s disdain for every “Tom and Dick and Harriet” who was traipsing off into the wilderness to snap, snap, snap, snap  anything and everything that moves.

Finishing off the thirty-minute set was “This is all that matters”, inspired by Paul Strand’s photograph “The Bird on the Edge of Space”. The song is a delicate poem, tenderly lamenting Strand’s failure in his marriage resulting from an unyielding passion for his art. Special uses this piece to remind us that anything worth doing, any art worth creating, is worth sticking your neck out for.

Duke Special is unconventional, playing in a style wonderfully at odds with modern pop music. His sonic imagery has made an impression, leaving me excited to further explore his works. As I do, I will be sharing them with you on Paddy-Whacked Radio.

Duke Special has released eight full length CDs since 2005. His latest, Oh Pioneer (2012), is a masterpiece of poetry and sonic exploration which was not represented in this performance.  I strongly recommend a listen!

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The creator, DJ and overall operator of Paddy-Whacked Radio, a labor of love operating since 2006. Also a Geology major (BS, GIT), Technician and Presenter at the Sciworks Planetarium in Winston-Salem, father of three AMAZING kids (who like my music), Star Wars nerd, and a darn good cook. Originally from Boston, now living in North Carolina where the show is broadcast from WQFS, Guilford College radio in Greensboro.

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