Duke Special and Ulaid | Review
with support from Reevah
Nerve Centre, Derry • 23 September ’16
Review by Aine Cronin McCartney
The first time I saw Duke Special was a little over six years ago in the very same venue as I am in tonight, Derry’s Nerve Centre. After extensive refurbishments in the last few months, it is the perfect way to celebrate the opening of their new event space with a special performance from Duke Special and Ulaid. A lovely reprise to the venues former glory of one of the most loved and respected music venues in the country and I hope it continues in this vain.
Rising singer songwriter Aoife Boyle who performs under the moniker Reevah is the support for the night. Taking to the stage, her earthy presence and flawless blend of soul and folk make her the perfect opening act. Beginning her set with ‘Fear’ it is evident from the first note that Reevah is a delicate and heartfelt performer. Reevah’s voice is both pure and haunting and succeeds in sending shivers down my spine. Dedicating her song ‘Sunflower Girl’ to a friend she lost recently, you could hear a pin drop; it is a very moving and touching tribute. Her song ‘Daydreamer’ which was Reevah’s first release in July seems to be a confessional narrative and is poignantly performed. Finishing her set with a stripped back version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’, it is a beautiful start to the evening.
With the newly decorated venue now overflowing with music dwellers, there is excitement building for the main act to begin. Starting without warning Duke begins on the piano, taking the crowd by surprise. This is a more stripped back demeanour from Duke than what we are used to with the addition of a beard and no makeup. Introducing guitarist Sean Og, he takes his seat before the rest of Ulaid join him to an evidently elated crowd.
The idea for the collaboration between leading traditional musicians Ulaid and Duke Special originally came from Tíona McSherry who is in the audience tonight. Out of this was born a collection of old and new songs that the band along with Duke has called The Belfast Suite. Stumbling upon a trove of information called the Francis J Bigger collection, the boys were able to take inspiration from many of the poems and stories they found at the Belfast Central Library. Spending time in Dónal O’Connor’s Red Box Studio in Belfast rehearsing and reworking old and new material, it was then decided to tour for a select number of special performances.
Dedicating a song to whom the group assert to be Ireland’s greatest poet, they launch into their song ‘A top up for Heaney’. Beginning the song with an expressive intro on the fiddle, the rest of Ulaid join in while members of the audience stomp their feet enthusiastically. There is a great atmosphere with a charming and amiable ambiance. Whilst there was a lot of historical resonance throughout all the songs, Duke however was inspired by a whimsical story about a dog called Fido who died by the effects of poison; the song is a light-hearted and entertaining anecdote for the audience.
Explaining the origin of another song, Duke says, “While not incredibly common for the shipyards of Belfast to be celebrated in Irish traditional music, I did find inspiration”. This inspiration was evident as they performed the aptly named ‘The Shipyards of Belfast’. Finishing their set with a charming song about the ‘Blackbird of Belfast Lough’, the audience are thrilled by what has been an incredibly entertaining and pleasurable evening. Coming back for an encore of ‘My Lagan Love’, one of Belfast’s most loved English language songs, it has been the perfect introduction not only to the Duke Special and Ulaid collaboration, but also a reintroduction of the Nerve Centre as a premier venue of live music.
Photo: Tremaine Gregg