Duncan Sheik previews next production in Boston

A review of Duncan Sheik at the Berklee Performance Center on March 13, 2009

, Contributing Writer

With his warm voice, Duncan Sheik was triumphantly cool as he sang the clever lyrics and strummed his acoustic guitar to “For You”, a great sweet song and a definite highlight of his performance. Dressed in a striped V-neck sweater, fedora and jeans, Sheik’s talented singing commanded the audience’s attention. The fullness of the song, created in part by the other musicians on the stage, easily filled the theater, even though many seats were not filled with attendees.

Admittedly I’m not the most die-hard fan of the acoustic singer-songwriter set, but in an effort to step out of my comfort zone, I headed to the Back Bay on Friday night to try something new.

Sheik followed his first song with “Wishful Thinking” and then, before he sang “Such Reveries”, made a small confession: “It is very daunting to be in this room. Are there Berklee students in this room? They’re all better guitar players than I am.”

Sheik’s decorated music-writing career is anything but modest. Setting him apart from fellow musicians, he wrote the music for Spring Awakening, the rock musical that ran on Broadway in 2006 and received multiple Tony awards. The album of the original cast recording won a Grammy award. Apparently he found his niche. His latest album, Whisper House, was released in January and also has plans for the stage. Accordingly, the majority of his Friday night performance was devoted to this niche.

Sheik played several songs from Spring Awakening with vocal help from Lauren Pritchard, who played the original Ilse in the Broadway production and looked a little like Jennifer Connelly in “The Labyrinth”. Pritchard’s vocals were good enough, but she always seemed a little awkward on stage when she wasn’t singing. Sheik set up how the songs fit into the musical before singing most of them, but the performing of songs from a musical without the cast and set, or the lines in-between, leaves a little something to be desired.

For a break between songs from Spring Awakening and the ones he played from his new album, Sheik sang “She Runs Away”, another mellow tune which was enhanced by Sheik’s comfortable singing and the sound of the lead guitarist’s astral-sounding chords.

Sheik described the plot of his new album Whisper House as& a story about a boy who is sent to live in a lighthouse in Maine with his aunt and the other residents who are, well, less-alive. Most of these new songs had an eerie quality, as they were written from the point-of-view of the ghosts. On the album and on Friday night, they were sung by Sheik and vocalist Holly Brook. Pritchard’s and Brook’s voices are completely different — Brook’s being more indulgently breathy – and I would have preferred to hear more of Pritchard. “Better To be Dead” and “The Tale of Solomon Snell” stood out with their dark humor, but they made me long for costumes and dialogue. It seems these performances are sort of like an extended trailer for the actual stage production.

Most of Sheik’s enthusiasm was reserved for his theater work, and when he came back on stage for an encore to play a couple more songs for the crowd (None of which were his biggest radio hit, “Barely Breathing”) he said, with a hint of sarcasm, “Here are some more pop songs.” (I don’t expect to hear anything new from Sheik on the pop stations any time soon.)& He played “On a High” which had some very cool cello, French horn and clarinet work in it, and followed that with a cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” during which he easily hit some dazzling sky-scraping notes. The electric guitar, and the drums, and the singing all created the sound of an actual band at an actual concert, which was very cool, since the rest of the show had beautiful parts but not a lot of fire.

Introspection is good and all, but personally, I need a little more excitement in my Friday night shows. But, you know how rock fans are, we want to throw every good singer in front of a screaming guitar, thumping drums and bottoming bass-line just to see what would happen. Sheik, on the other hand, would have been better off with a Broadway set, a handful of actors, and a few dance routines. Friday night was somewhere in between the two, a nice night but one that would have been better off as one or the other.

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