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| Duke Special and Malojian live at The Strand, Belfast
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Duke Special and Malojian live at The Strand, Belfast

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The Venue

The Strand Arts Centre

Holywood Road, Belfast

The Lineup

Duke Special


The Details

26th August 2015


Sublime northern Irish talents shine through the Belfast rain.

It’s lashing down on the Hollywood Road. Outside the Strand, hoods up, a few soaked souls seek solace in a cigarette.

Inside, drying out now, and Malojian open with ‘Watch the Rain’ – my all-time favourite rainy day song. Heart-cockles warm and wet toes curl. This early-Malojian song – from the first album ‘The Deer’s Cry’ demonstrates precisely why Stephen Scullion’s song-writing skills have garnered praise and adulation far and wide – most notably perhaps from “Whispering” Bob Harris of Old Grey Whistle Test fame.

Malojian is a humble three-piece and therein lies the charm: Stephen Scullion, busker-like with guitar and harmonica, the inventive Michael Mormecha on drums and Joe McGurgan, with that great big beautiful double bass played with both grace and aplomb.

I often wonder how song-writing of Stephen Scullion’s simple brilliance happens? A lyricist that can make the rain “elope on a ray of hope, never found” then match that with the perfect melody and sound – blending hope and despair, well, that’s profound. Where does that gift come from?

Scullion maybe wonders that himself, whether it just comes out of the ether or sucked up from the sub-conscious. Neatly, next up, is ‘Often Wonder’, also from‘The Deer’s Cry’. Can’t quite describe what that double bass sound adds to this experience – raw, radiant, discordant, harmonious, ambivalent and a spectrum of other contradictions.

‘Bathtub Blues’ is a wee beauty of a tune. It wouldn’t sound wrong as the theme tune for some seventies sit-com. Maybe it’s that throwback sound that caught the curiousity of Bob Harris. Jaunty, sun-shiny, good clean fun with a glorious whistling interlude. Scullion quips, that was a Whistle Test (a cute reference to that aforementioned influential show). Here’s a thought, people don’t tend to whistle tunes much anymore, which is a shame really. Bring back whistling!

Anyway, if ‘Watch the Rain’ is my favourite rainy day song, then ‘Old Timer’ is by far my favourite Malojian song. While the new album ‘Southlands’ is certainly outstanding, ‘Old Timer’ (from ‘The Deer’s Cry’) captures a rare insight into old-fashioned gentility and human fragility – it’ll hit you in the gut every time.

The natural, self-deprecating, honest-to-goodness character of Scullion just makes you warm to him. He’s funny, witty, and throws in some quips between songs. Banter. A tale about his brother being sent to India to train workers in a call centre – but he couldn’t get India to fit in the lyrics so it was changed to Borneo – hence‘Calling Borneo’. Another anecdote – after the Low Anthem/Fleet Foxes gig at Custom House Square a few years back, young Scullion spent the night on the tiles and in trouble with Mrs Malojian, but the outcome of that was the song‘Julie-Ann’ so am sure Mrs Malojian forgave him.

‘Crease of Your Smile’ – from Southlands – sounds more country than the regular Malojian sound, while ‘What Am I Worth’ is Malojian magic – a chorus with incredible ear-worm ability.

Absolute gold and if you’ve never seen Malojian live, make sure you do before you grow old and they grow wings, for I hope they soar.

Just at the half way mark – Duke Special is next up, and he’s waited 15 years to play the Strand. A local resident, he’s passed by this landmark building daily and always wanted to do a gig here, so as they say, it’s not just his lucky night but ours too – Malojian and Duke Special under one art-deco roof.

Two Peter’s on stage in fact. Peter McAuley – an acclaimed musician and song-writer in his own right – on drums. In a dramatic start, they bring up Jesus and his blood. ‘In A Dive’ from the Duke’s latest clever endeavour ‘Look Out Machines!’– discovering divinity in the down and out places, a grown up song about moving on in terms of spiritual enlightenment. That voice swirls from man to innocent choir boy, with childlike intervention: ‘Look out Crows!’ heralds Duke’s theatricality.

Looking around the audience indicates the breadth of Special’s appeal. There’s no ‘type’, just a captivated crowd hanging on to every word.

Stand out tracks from ‘Look Out Machines’ such as ‘Nail on the Head’ before trawling back a few years in that vast Special repertoire to ‘Under the Dark Cloth’for ‘Cherryblossom Girl’, ‘Georgia O’Keeffe’, and ‘You Press the Button, We do the Rest’.

Introducing us to the art of Alfred Stielglitz, the pioneering American photographer whose late 19th century work holds a fascination for Special is just one of many highlights. Educating us on the Steiglitz canon and his entertaining stories of Steiglitz’s turbulent relationship with iconic American artist Georgia O’Keeffe; and the rivalry with Kodak’s Mr Eastman, who catapulted photographs into mass production with the Kodak brand and strapline – “You press the button, we do the rest”, thereby infuriating the artist-photographer and invoking his wrath. This entertaining episode in the middle of the performance is just one of many indicators why the Duke is a shining light in our artistic aristocracy.

This fascinating experimentation with form and the peculiar, the past and the future, suggests that Special has a visionary knack juxtaposed with the eccentric. Tributes to the late Harry Nilsson and our gem Ruby Murray (‘Happy Days, Lonely Nights’); more sweeps back in time with old sheet music for ‘September Song’ (familiar as ‘May to December’); mingle with expected favourites – such as‘Freewheel’, ‘Salvation Tambourine’ and ‘Brixton Leaves’.

Anticipating an encore and an ending that will leave us in awe and admiration – Duke returns with his version of Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’. Timely for Lughnasa and Lammas, we depart with a sense of wonder. More gold from Eastside Arts Festival – hats off to that.