This C Duncan article was written by Stephen Butchard, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited By Natalie Whitehouse. Lead photo by Oscar Stewart
C Duncan’s set at Glasgow’s Art School feels like a homecoming party just as much as it does a concert. Duncan’s university years were spent at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire just down the road, and it’s evident that a few of his close friends are in attendance tonight – along with his mum and dad, who he gives a brief shoutout to at the set’s conclusion. Duncan even held the launch event for his rapturously received debut album ‘Architect’ in this very room. Since then, he’s gone on to tour the country and gain a boost of popularity in the form of a Mercury Prize nomination. There’s a feeling that everyone is celebrating the success of C Duncan in this crowd tonight.
This is, of course, with good reason. Duncan’s classically influenced music is a unique blend of folk, baroque pop, and dreampop fused together so effortlessly as to create a musical world all of its own. His first album is a record GIGsoup called ‘one of the most confident debuts of the year’, upon its release. Living up to its bold name, ‘Architect’ was written, recorded and produced solely by Duncan in his Glasgow flat, utilising multi-track recording to layer shy harmonies and delicate guitar brushes over each other. Live, these carefully constructed song become tangible thanks to the presence of a full band.
On stage, Duncan’s touring band give his melodies a quiet sense of energy, while fleshing out the nuanced textures as seen on record. ‘Say’ bounces with a more pronounced groove that generates a sense of momentum not heard on the tranquil album cut. Cymbals and brushed snare drums crackle underneath gorgeous vocal harmonies, while the strummed guitar backing feels satisfyingly rustic in person. As Duncan reaches up into his falsetto, he stretches the key to its very edges, crafting a delicate sense of awe. It’s obvious as he’s technically proficient, but his nuanced songwriting means he never to falls into garish flashiness. These collections of tracks are as deep as they are quiet.
The live setting shows these songs to not just be deep, but diverse. ‘He Believes in Miracles’ is unabashedly quaint, even by Duncan’s quirk heavy standards. The interlocking vocals between Duncan and his bandmates (“He believes in Miracles” “Oh what will I doooo!”) are smile inducing in their camp theatricality. The brief flashes of barbershop are yet another influence that colours this dense musical world in vivid shades. On the live version of ‘For’, the tempo is upped to giddy levels. A chirpy whistle refrain weaves through the airy synths and echoing guitar plucks.
At times, the interlocking harmonies aren’t as immaculate as on record, while some details that added to ‘Architect’s rich presentation, such as the warm splashes vibraphone on ‘He believes in Miracles’, are lost in the transformation to the stage. Despite this, every song here is rethought with wide eyed bursts of creativity that make the them just as captivating.
Toward’s the set’s backend, Duncan treats the audience to a chilly, stripped back ballad, ‘I’ll Be Gone By Winter’, a rare moment of gloom in a set filled with brightness and effervescence. It’s an eerie moment that sees the singer at his quietest; with little more than his vocal and a few sparse guitar strums, he remains is just as commanding as anywhere else. By comparison, the pre-encore closer ‘Garden’ is the closest thing Duncan has made to a rock song. Dizzy hand claps and jazzy guitar chords skip alongside woozily ascending organs, every instrument rushing towards the track’s triumphant guitar breakdown at its finish. Even in this brief flash of raucous energy, Duncan manages to squeeze in a few campy “Bah bah-b-bah bah!” backing vocals. The dense layering is as charming as it is disorienting.
On his return at the encore, Duncan humbly bobs his head before performing two new cuts. The first, ‘Castle Walls’, is a pensive choral piece that’s perhaps the closest the performer has gotten to channelling his inner Fleet Fox. It’s a beautiful cut that fits snugly into the small world he’s crafted for himself and for his audience. The second focuses on warm layers of synths and eighties influenced synth textures – yet another quality added to his toy-box of sound. Listening to it, it’s easy to get the feeling that C Duncan has just started. The next time we hear from him, his world could be even bigger. After the set, the audience can’t wait to dive back into it.