Social Sounds Festival (Part 2) | Review

Social Sounds Festival (Part 2) | Review

Duke Special • The Bonnevilles • Ryan McMullan • Goldie Fawn • R51

By Stephen McGurk • Photos Tremaine Gregg

“This is very fancy – but what did we expect!” Duke Special says of the Cotton Court surroundings for Social Sounds Festival.

For an outdoor event it still seems a very intimate location with the red-brick buildings sheltering us on one side, The Merchant on the other – and a lone tree at the back reminding us that we are in fact outdoors. Even on this soggy Belfast night the crowds have filled the courtyard outside 21Social for the festival.

Duke Special starts his set with a little ode on piano before the dark and jaunty ‘Brixton Leaves kicks’ in followed by a visceral version of ‘Hand of Man’.  The arrangements feel very purposeful and organised and with CJ Hillman on pedal steel and guitar no notes go wasted during the show.


Aside from the fun-theatrical songs and the captivating show that the band put on, Duke Special can strip it back to reveal a side of true thoughtfulness and vulnerability – on ‘No Cover Up’  he sings “If you try to find me you will never win/For behind each layer lies this other skin”. It strikes me that this is him putting his worries and innermost thoughts on display; this is how he works through problems that are also universal to all of us.

During the whole night’s performance his notebooks are spread on top of the piano showing the honesty he displays and the confident-shyness with which he operates. Some of the most poignant moments of the night are when he sits behind the piano and bleeds.

Moon of Alabamais a song from 1928” Duke assures us in case we mistake him for covering The Doors and their version of the song.
Kurt Weill used the song for the play “Little Mahagonny” and as Duke Special is now the artist in residence at The Lyric Theatre and developing a musical adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn” – based on songs by Kurt Weil – he is well educated on where the song originally came from.

I guess we have to now consider songs like ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’ and ‘Freewheel’ as Duke Special classics – it feels strange to say it – but they are; and played live they are still able to seduce the audience.


Duke finished with a cover of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and then played a song from his upcoming musical in The Lyric before tipping the piano over and walking off to shocked applause from the audience who were both grateful to have seen such a complete show and worried about the health of the now cracked piano.

I’m reading an article on Tom Waits from Uncut magazine that a friend gave me and I guess Tom would be very pleased with some of the inventive sounds, drums, instruments and cheese-graters that Temperance Society (aka Chip Bailey) utilises during Duke Special’s songs.

Tom Waits would probably have enjoyed the show – but then again who really knows what Tom Waits thinks…

The Duke had been in the crowd watching The Bonnevilles before his set and dishing out a few hugs to some of his close friends as the moon was rising up over the roof of The Spaniard.

The Bonnevilles have been busy over the summer with a schedule full of festivals all over the country, a new music video for ‘No Law In Lurgan‘; and next week they start their UK tour.

Tonight Andy seemed possessed by the Devil himself as we are barrel rolled through ‘The Electric Company, Good Suits & Fighting Boots’ with Chris McMullan barely having enough time to get a swig of his sawn-off bottle of Buckfast before firing into the next song.

During ‘My Dark Heart‘ the fans were giving it everything they had in the front row – and rightly so. What took the edge of for me was the guy who took out his camera phone and started to record these people while laughing to his mate beside him.

What’s going on with that type of culture where people feel free to record anything they want and send it to their “followers” on Snapchat or whatever?
It has to stop.

It’s bad enough that CCTV is on the increase without “the-thought-police-public” recording your every move too. In fairness the guy recording looked like he had bought tickets for completely the wrong festival and would have been more at home at Avicii the week before with the kids down in Boucher Road Park.
The Bonnevilles can slam songs with the best of them but their real subtlety comes with the dynamics of songs like Kneel at the Altar and I’ve Come Too Far For Love To Die where the quiet and space is as effective as the crashing drums and raw guitar.

“I shoulda just played all the piano ones first, then all the guitar ones after” laughs Ryan McMullan, earlier in the night, as he changed again from standing with his guitar to sitting behind the piano for the third time. It kept the crowd – and the soundman – attentive as he performed a Black is the Colour/Maniac 2000 mashup in his soulful and sultry voice. He asks for a bit of crowd participation for Holding Me Down – a song that an artist like Michael Kiwanuka would be proud of – and then ends his slot with an a cappella song and led the crowd in a toast to health as sirens rang out around the cathedral quarter.


The Cathedral Quarter has long been cemented as the creative hub of Belfast. Each establishment brings their own unique essence to the area. That individuality is the reason it succeeds. That’s the reason people spend their time here.

Tonight Duke Special again cemented his place as part of Belfast’s musical royalty.I just hope his piano makes a full recovery.

Goldie Fawn • R51 • Ryan McMullan • The Bonnevilles • Duke Special







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