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The Stage, a Book & the Silver Screen
Artist: Duke Special
Label: Reel-to-Reel
Time: 29 tracks / 87 mins       

Duke Special has come a long way since his acoustic sets with an old gramophone-decked piano closed Greenbelt’s performance café. Previous album I Never Thought This Day Would Come was BBC Radio 2’s Record of the Week and he headlined Greenbelt’s mainstage in 2009 with a performance that showed more verve than did Sixpence None the Richer, who finished one of the other nights. (Surely his next project must be a live DVD?)
This trilogy of discs (also available separately) does just what the title says.
Duke Special (actually Peter Wilson) was commissioned to write and perform Mother Courage and Her Children for Deborah Warner’s National Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s landmark eponymous anti-war stage play. It is a difficult project to get right, as Brecht’s philosophy of drama was (crudely put) that what was going on onstage should alienate the audience, so that they could assess the point objectively. This would hardly suit the Duke’s natural warm style. 
Wilson has always used theatrical elements. His music also works because his vaudeville instincts bring to mind the World Wars that the play refers to (albeit via the Thirty Years' War of 1618–1648 to nominally distance the work from what was happening in Europe as Brecht wrote it in 1939). Perhaps his light style belies the heaviness of the topic (and there is a great darkness in some of these lyrics) so helping Brecht’s alienation after all.
The songs, using Brecht’s original texts, depict individual characters and their views. The eponymous Mother Courage, a canteen lady who follows the soldiers, loses her three children in the war. Her theme is the strongest of the set. In a Sky Arts feature on the work, Wilson explained how this song “contains a lot of references about war and about the essence of the play, so I wanted it to be something that was absolutely huge, and at times sound as though all hell was breaking loose,” adding about its being reprised twice, “I didn’t want it to be too immediate, so you wouldn’t be sick of it.” There is no danger of that; it works well as a core tune.
A chaplain, officers and prostitute are also among the cast. So the graphic song about crucifixion is given a personal twist by the weak chaplain. Its banjo track adds a vulnerability to the piece and focuses the hearer on the lyric. This adds clout to the powerfully cynical “Great Capitulation” that follows it.
This is a very fine work in the context of the stage play, but it may be harder for the home listener to relate to its themes.
For the very brief book disc, “Huckleberry Finn” gathers the only five songs that Kurt Weill finished before he died in 1950 for his dramatization of Mark Twain’s work. This links to the first disc, both in that these songs (apparently never previously recorded together) were destined for the stage, but also in that Weill was one of Brecht’s collaborators. Mellow and melodic, they capture the summery mood of Finn’s world, due in no small part to Ben Castle’s inspired score for brass and strings. “Catfish,” sung with Beth Rowley, was the song that drew Wilson to this collection, but I return more often to the scene-setting “River Chanty” and “Come in, Mornin’.”
For “The Silent World of Hector Mann” Wilson sent eleven other writers (including Aqualung and Ed Harcourt) a copy of Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions about Mann, an obscure silent film actor who appeared in twelve films. Wilson asked each to write a song “in a pre -rock and roll style” based on the title of a Mann film to go alongside his own “Mister Nobody.” 
This is the ‘proper’ release of the set with a cohesive set of stories that are nearer to Wilson’s normal fare. There is something about the comic characters and slapstick capers of silent film that suits Duke Special to the ground. Neil Hannon’s “Wanda, Darling of the Jockey Club” shows his usual genius with surreal humor in general and comedy couplets in particular. Aqualung’s is an atmospheric piece. Otherwise, it is the less recognized writers that deliver some of the surprises here and show the quality of musicians who share Wilsons’s musical world, particularly his producer, Paul Pilot.
“I’d always suspected that where the arts overlap is where it gets interesting and you can do something original,” Wilson told Sky Arts, “I want to branch out and be touched by other art forms.” His experimentation paid off, as this humorous, earthy and touching pack certainly has both interest and originality. It will not to everyone’s taste, but this pack revels in the pathos, pleasure, pain and peculiarities of humanity and does so in Wilson’s own distinctive style. 
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Derek Walker


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