Duncan Sheik Captivates Landmark Audience

From Radiohead to Broadway, this concert at the Landmark on Main Street had it all.

Duncan Sheik with guitarsWhen I mentioned to people that I was going to see Duncan Sheik at the Landmark, I got one of three responses: 1) “Who?” 2) “Oh yeah, that guy who did ‘Barely Breathing’ in the ’90s” or 3) “Wow! We loved Spring Awakening on Broadway!” This led me to believe that Duncan Sheik was: 1) not well enough known, 2) a pop star, or 3) a Broadway song writer. It turns out that all three are true.

I, myself, only knew Sheik through his 1996 hit single, “Barely Breathing,” which spent 55 weeks on the Billboard charts and is one of those songs that gets stuck in your head and just won’t get out. But I was unfamiliar with what Sheik had been up to since, and I ended up being completely blown away by his talent and versatility.

An opening act started the evening – two members of the Entropy Ensemble, a group I’d heard recently on NPR and made note of because of their interesting, almost classical reinventions of Radiohead songs. The audience at Landmark was treated to a set performed by pianist Andrew Walker, and a dynamite violinist, Javier Orman. These young men looked to be barely out of college, but their playing was mature, complex, and intense. The set consisted entirely of their instrumental interpretations of Radiohead material, including “Paranoid Android,” “There, There,” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien.”

After a brief intermission, Sheik took the stage. Surrounded by acoustic guitars (I counted at least six), he was charming, humble and engaging. Accompanying him was a young female keyboard player/singer (Holly Brook) and an electric guitarist who vaguely resembled Andy Warhol (Gerry Leonard). Sheik began his set with songs from his concept album, Whisper House, which was recently turned into a musical. Whisper House tells the story of an 11-yea- old boy who goes to live with his aunt in a haunted lighthouse after his father is shot down in World War II. Many of the songs are sung from the viewpoint of the ghosts that haunt the lighthouse. Sheik and his band performed four songs from the album, all wonderful, all haunting.

Brook, the singer/keyboardist, was a perfect foil for Sheik. Her voice had amazing range of tone, sounding at times like Sarah McLaughlin (breathy and ethereal) and Joan Osborne (earthy and bluesy). Aside from the grand piano, Brook also played an odd instrument which I believe to be a piano accordion — about the size of a microwave, it sat on a table and Brook would squeeze the bellows with one hand (sort of like opening and shutting the microwave door) while playing the keyboard with the other.

Following the Whisper House songs, Sheik moved on to songs from the musical Spring Awakening, his collaboration with writing partner, Steven Sater. One song — “Mama Who Bore Me” particularly showcased the considerable vocal talents of Brook. Other numbers from Spring Awakening included “Touch Me” and “I Don’t Do Sadness.” Sheik switched guitars for each song, sometimes playing a 12-string, but his electric guitarist used just one, adding elegant and extraordinary accents and solos using a guitar synthesizer to create otherworldly sounds.

I couldn’t stop staring at the electric guitarist. He was astounding. I couldn’t get over his tasteful playing. But more than that, he was familiar. I recognized his style … but from where? It came to me, later that evening. He was the same guitarist who was backing Suzanne Vega during her incredible performance at Landmark in January! (And I raved about him then too). Gerry Leonard — if you are reading this — I think you’re brilliant. It’s a shame that studio/touring musicians don’t get the accolades they deserve.

But I digress … After the Spring Awakening set, Sheik moved on to a new song “Half a Room” and then played an old song “Such Reveries” before moving on to a few highly unusual covers. Sheik has a nice range and a clear voice. His songwriting talent is obvious. But who knew what he could do with someone else’s songs? He did a simply astounding version of Depeche Mode’s “Stripped” as well as a sweet cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ classic “The Ghost in You.” He closed his set with a scaled down version of “Barely Breathing,” which I have not been able to stop humming since the weekend.

He was joined onstage for his first encore by the two members of the Entropy Ensemble, and they played (you guessed it) a Radiohead cover. Sheik’s final song, “Home,” a lovely ballad, was the perfect ending to a truly outstanding performance.