Nestled amongst endless sloping moorlands, evening settles quietly over the foothills of the Pennines. Cars line either side of a hill so high, you can hear the hand brakes groan. The lights from the town below are just visible in the distance, and cool air breezes innocently past a small huddled crowd. They are gathered on a pavement corner outside a pub, and a warm glow spills out through the door as they file in.
Verge at the Rifleman is a long title for such a small venue, but one glance upwards to the patchwork of posters plastered upon the low ceiling, you know size is no real issue. Ian McNabb, Boo Hewerdine, Harp and a Monkey, George Borowski, Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer…a catalogue of great music has graced these walls.
Duke Special, the unique ‘boho-chic’ Belfast singer-songwriter is tonight bringing alive the songs of Harry Nilsson, upon a tiny stage, to a packed out pub in Stalybridge. It’s the first of 3 dates he’s playing across England, recreating a show first toured across Ireland to much acclaim, last October.
With a true flair for engaging live performance, every Duke Special fan knows that whatever his latest project – be it songs inspired by American photographical pioneers, or a reinvention of a Bertolt Brecht play – the same thing holds true. His creativity knows no bounds, in other words – expect the unexpected.
Tonight’s show is no exception. Just below the stage, an eerie statue of a white dog stands over two green Gramophones. A couple emerge from the shadows, clutching a handful of rare 78 shellac records. Old time blues, with a vintage crackle. It’s an atmospheric start to the evening. Music gently fills the room as people mill about, chatter, and grab seats close to the stage, perched on mini bar stools with their pints of beer.
All The Luck In The World take over from the Gramophone DJs, an Irish three piece with beautiful guitar melodies, yearning voices, intricate drumming. Expertly arranged and expressed – their self titled debut album is a sure seller at the merchandise table.
The assembled Duke fanatics grow impatient for his arrival while the stage is set – his piano is pulled forward, and his arrival is greeted with raucous applause. He skips through a whole history of Harry Nilsson songs, covering the American songwriters’ career from a hilariously brilliant version of Coconut, the one-chord-character-song, to the contagiously catchy Me And My Arrow spawned from a 1970s animation that Nilsson co-created.
The pin-drop silence as he presents a bare bones, heart-wrenchingly beautiful Without You is the highlight of the evening. Nilsson won a Grammy for his version in 1973 – how brilliant it is to see a song with such longevity still being shared, and lovingly re-crafted in 2014.
Duke Special’s take on the songs is inspiring. His enthusiasm for his craft ever present, and he shows clear joy in interpreting the works of the perhaps under-appreciated singer-songwriter. The audience stay with him right to the last note of the night, joining in with the familiar, eager to soak up the new. His band of collaborators play as equals, musicianship second to none. It would be great to see the performance being given permanent life on a release in the future…everyone reluctantly shuffling home as the show ends, would no doubt agree.