Mouth on Fire: Duncan Sheik (and friends) At Town Hall

Posted on November 17, 2008

I’m on a high, and there’s nothing more to it – listening to Duncan Sheik at Town Hall this past Thursday was definitely one of my year’s highlights.

And I’m not exaggerating. If you’re one of my Last.fm buddies, you probably understand just how obsessed I am with his music – apparently I listen to him twice as much as any other artist! Most of you will remember him (if you do), for his 1996 single “Barely Breathing“, which stayed on the Top 20 for more than a year. That was a great single, but his skills as a singer-songwriter have come so far since then that it would be a shame if you never listened to his later material.

The show’s opening was a pleasant surprise – none other than Lauren Pritchard, whom theater buffs will recognize as Ilse from Sheik’s musical Spring Awakening. As it turns out, she too is a singer-songwriter of considerable talent, who was writing and performing even before her Broadway debut. She played quite a few of her own songs, including “Fallin’“, “Traffic“, and “Somebody Won’t“, all of which did a nice job at highlighting her smoky, precociously soulful voice – best described as resembling that of Joss Stone, or a huskier version of Alicia Keys’. Her stage presence is shy, almost awkward, though she did eventually warm up to the audience – not too difficult, considering most were already fans of her Broadway performance. According to her MySpace page, Pritchard plans to release an album at the end of the year – something to look forward to.

But it was Sheik we came to see, and taking the stage, he did not disappoint. Working with an eclectic band (including piano, electric guitar, cello, and even a french horn!), his part of the show struck a nice balance between his older material (“Such Reveries”, “On a High“, “Home“), songs from Spring Awakening (“Mama Who Bore Me“, “The Dark I Know Well“, “Touch Me“, (both with Holly Brook and Lauren Pritchard) “I Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind“, with Lauren Pritchard), and totally new material. The beauty of Duncan Sheik’s music lies in the intimate expressiveness of his voice and his deeply personal lyrics, and though he has matured considerably as an artist, it was great to see him recapture the spirit of songs released more than 12 years ago. My only complaint is that he didn’t perform any material from his sophomore album “Humming” or 2001’s “Phantom Moon” – a performance of his self-effacing “Nothing Special” would have been divertingly ironic, and I think the frenzied, tortured energy of “Mouth on Fire” would have shone on stage.

Also a pleasure to listen to were several songs from Sheik’s upcoming musical “Whisper House”, which eschews Spring Awakening’s adolescents to tell the story of Christopher, an eleven-year-old boy who moves to a haunted lighthouse after losing his father during World War II. This time around, Sheik provides both the music and lyrics; probably a good thing for this story, considering how confusingly abstract Steven Sater’s words from Spring Awakening could be. The songs ranged from a touching explanation of the necessity of death (“Earthbound Starlight”, with Holly Brook), existential humor (“We Don’t Believe in You”, during which ghosts disavow the boy’s existence), to one of many macabre, tongue-in-cheek ghost stories (“The Tale of Solomon Snell”). The project will culminate in two forms – a Keith Powell-directed musical production at the Delaware Theater Company (in April 2009), and a Duncan Sheik (not cast recording) album, to be released in January. Here’s hoping the production makes a stop at Broadway!

Onstage, Duncan Sheik’s discipline and attention to detail were visible in the seven different guitars he used that night, as well as his near laser focus on his music – except for interludes explaining the Whisper House songs, he spoke little, and rarely about anything other than the next song. At the same time, he was cheerfully laid back, not above poking good-natured fun at himself, his bandmates, or Broadway (“So after all the naughty/bad stuff happens in Spring Awakening, they all sing a song and feel better about it. I have this Broadway thing figured out!”). Casually dressed in a vest, plaid shirt, and jeans, he had a warm rapport with the audience; we might have been in a studio jam session, not one of New York’s historical venues. Though I believe his music remains sadly underrated, it was great to spend the evening with Duncan in all three of his masks – the pop star, the Tony-winning composer, and the introspective songwriter.

Your reward for reading to the end of this? Another link – Duncan Sheik and Holly Brook performing “Earthbound Starlight” and “She Runs Away” on Live 100.5 in Birmingham.

» Filed Under Everything and Nothing, Music

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