Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Amnesty International Small Places Tour: Duke Special vs Divine Comedy

Amnesty International is marking the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the ‘Small Places Tour’. Inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s call for ‘concerted citizen action’ in her famous “small places” speech in 1958, musicians and fans will raise their voices in song and action in venues, cities, towns, communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Through hundreds of concerts held around the world, Amnesty International will draw attention to urgent human rights concerns, recruit thousands of new human rights activists and, hopefully, raise much needed funds for Amnesty campaigns.
Take two fantastic musicians, their mutual appreciation for the finer things in life, two black grand pianos and one epic battle with plastic lightsabres and you have some idea of what the Small Places Tour in Dublin's Vicar Street was like last night.

From the opening act of pianist (Dave Couse), guitarist (Fergal Bunbury) and Rike Soeller, a young cellist who reminded me just how sexy an instrument in female hands can be, it was clear that this wasn't going to be a standard gig.

Vicar Street looked and sounded great. The stage setting of pianos, candelabras and dry ice provided a suitably moody background to the music to come. When Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and Peter Wilson, aka Duke Special came on stage in suitable duelling attire, the audience whooped and cheered their feigned duel, taking sides as naturally as our seating would allow.

It was somewhat appropriate that I end up sitting at Hannon's side of the stage, being far more familiar with both his music and style than I am of Duke Special. Despite meeting said gentleman at the Meteor Awards earlier this year, it was perhaps his appearance that suggested a style of music that wouldn't be to my taste. Well, I certainly learned not to judge a book (or indeed musician) by the cover.

Despite Darren's insistence on his genius, I somehow evaded his musical talent until last night and I'm, quite frankly, delighted I did since I can think of no better way to discover such talent. It was his song "I never thought this day would come (and now it won't go away)" that confirmed to me just how appropriate the pairing on stage was.

Suitably melodramatic, foppish, gentlemanly and witty, the dialogue and musical interaction between Hannon and Wilson, while entertaining was a second to the music. I hadn't expected the premise to be that they would each cover the other's songs, duetting on either neutral, well known songs or some of their classics. What becomes of the broken hearted was great:

Each made the songs they performed their own and when Duke Special jokingly commented they'd rerecord a certain track for their live album, there was a cheer from the audience at the thought that this pairing would make more music together.

I was teaching the ten year old daughter of a friend of mine the basics of piano on Sunday evening, amused at how something as simple as "thumb under, after e" could seem complicated to a beginner. Watching Hannon play last night I was reminded just how skilful a pianist can be and how much I love hearing the instrument played well. Even National Express, a song that relies heavily in the original version on accompanying instruments was a joy to listen to, to sing along to and to enjoy.

(image not from last night's gig, from here)

Equally impressive was Duke Special, who has a great knack for involving the audience. He did a simple Victorian drinking song ("Down at the old Bull and Bush"), just one verse and a chorus that had a packed Vicar Street singing along - the video is below.

He was in no way pretentious, never deferring to Hannon as a superior but not claiming to be better or more popular. He seemed to enjoy just being there, hearing his songs sung by Hannon and the audience. We certainly enjoyed listening to him. He's got a lovely, natural Belfast accent while singing that makes his sound quite distinctive. Try You're So Vain to see what I mean:

Ultimately the quality of a gig comes down to personal taste and experience. I certainly enjoyed it, surrounded by friends, listening to good music, musing on how a pretty awful day can be turned around by indulgence in something I love - quality live music, a good crowd, a great venue and an outstanding cause. Each box of same was ticked last night and it'll be a while before it's matched, I think.

It is to Amnesty's credit that they could get two such artists to perform for their causes, and it certainly established them firmly on my radar. I've been checking out their site this morning to see how to get involved. The simplest thing you - if you're on a Republic of Ireland phone network - can do is text 'join' to 51444. The Small Places Tour continues around the country, including, I'm delighted to see, the Tracy Chapman gig in the Olympia in December which the lovely Stel has arranged tickets for. Woo.

I look forward to listening to more of Duke Special. He's starting a tour in November that I'd love to see, and his new album I never thought this day would come is released on Friday. Definitely one for the collection! I'll certainly be keeping an ear out for any future collaborations between The Divine Comedy and him.

While I hope Amnesty, and all the people they help benefited from last night, I really think the ones who had the most fun were the audience. We were treated. We were privileged to be there and we enjoyed it. If that's not what a good gig should be, I guess I don't really know what is.

Duke Special with a Victorian drinking song, followed by a daring duel:

Update 21/10 - I've just published any of the videos I took on the night. More details here.


  1. Yay, I'm glad you had a good time. It looks amazing and made doubly good that it's for such a good cause. Ahhhh :D

  2. seems like a really great evening - thanks for taking the time to share it with us

  3. Looks like I missed a great night last night. Looking forward to Tracy Chapman though :)

  4. Great vids Darragh, thanks again! I hope yesterday went well.

  5. Awesome review, Sir. Good man!

    And great vids - nicely done.

  6. This show was one of the best concerts I've ever been to. brilliant musicianship, brilliant theatrics, brilliant cause!

    (and great blogging)