Tuesday, 15 October 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: Duke Special & Meadbh McGinley

Musicians from both sides of the province light up Derry-Londonderry's Millennium Forum, paying homage to a singing and songwriting legend along the way

He was the "missing Beatle" and John Lennon's favourite American artist. Yet Harry Nilsson, who passed away nearly two decades ago, is at once one of the most celebrated yet overlooked voices in modern music. For all his song writing gifts, his two biggest hits were covers, and when one thinks of "Coconut", he or she will be more likely to associate it with The Muppets or Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

The Millennium Forum stage is therefore set for dreadlocked Belfast troubadour Peter "Duke Special" Wilson to remind us of Nilsson's finest credentials and to give us a good evening's worth of musical entertainment in his own right.

The disappointingly moderate but nonetheless expectant Forum audience are initially greeted by Wilson's "special guest", Derry-Londonderry pianist Meadbh McGinley, and her Steinway piano. And they are not to be let down. McGinley, who entered the local musical spotlight during her city's successful City Of Culture campaign in 2010, has come along in leaps and bounds since.

She projects a varyingly precise pitch that echoes Alannah Myles one minute and Adele the next, her graceful and sturdy piano playing carefully reflecting a poise that alternates between haunting humanity and absolute concentration. It's an ear-markedly elegant performance.

As the Harry Nilsson tribute begins, the red-tied, smiling Peter Wilson is to be joined by a not entirely familiar backing band. Guitarist Paul Pilot is still present, but gone are usual suspects Temperance Society Chip Bailey and Ben Castle. In their place are drummer Stephen Leacock (formerly of General Fiasco), and, most strikingly, trombonist, violinist & co-vocalist Hannah Peel. The fine-tuned sultriness of this Craigavon-born femme vocale is the perfect fit for Wilson's vaudevillian style.

To be frank, tonight any tune, Nilsson or otherwise, is a near perfect fit for Wilson. It has become Wilson's wont over the years to exhibit his surrealness, subtle or obvious, through the prism of genuinely good music. This is already obvious in "Me And My Arrow" which owes a minor debt to "Yellow Submarine" and "Turn On Your Radio", where Wilson's voice sounds exceptionally echoey. Or is that more down to the Forum's acoustics? Either way, the effect is positive.

Solitary then becomes sublime as an intimate performance of "One", made famous by Aimee Mann in Magnolia, precedes the long-awaited "Coconut". The popular song presents the best and the worst of this concert in a matter of minutes; while Wilson’s rendition, featuring shivering strings from Peel, is inspiringly jazzy, the atmosphere feels a little too formal and restrictive for maximum enjoyment. Nevertheless, the interactivity in the final refrain goes down pretty well with everyone in the Forum.

As does "Without You". All memories of Mariah Carey's depressingly memorable nineties cover of said song are successfully wiped away in the tonal equivalent of a lower-key "Freewheel". Peel bobs her head entrancingly from side to side while Wilson gently glides his fingers over the piano. Even if Wilson and Peel's one key vocal duet is a little awkward, that is a minor problem.

After placating the fan base with a few of his own tunes, including an audibly exhausting but quietly soothing performance of "No Cover Up" and a slightly restrained “Salvation Tambourine”, Wilson and his ensemble mark their return to Nilsson with a handful of tunes more suited to the surroundings. There remains enough variation here and there to end the evening on a very high note, notably, a solo performance from Peel ("Don’t Leave Me"), the thumping groove of "Beehive State", and, of course, "Everybody’s Talkin'", made famous by Midnight Cowboy. No one seems to care if Wilson struggles a tiny bit on the highest note of that well-known song. Such has been the quiet captivation in Harry Nilsson's – and Duke Special's, and Meadbh McGinley's – musical prowess.

Duke Special's "Harry Nilsson" tour will continue throughout Ireland until November 20, with Duke returning to Belfast at the Empire on December 6. For more information, check out www.dukespecial.com. For more on Meadbh McGinley, check her out on Facebook.