About seven or so years ago a friend snagged me an autographed Duncan Sheik ticket at a show I couldn't attend. The signed stub still sits in a jar of seed beads, thread, and needles. I don't know why I ever chose such a resting place for my souvenir, but after the concert at Orpheum's Stage Door, Sheik proved he has a lot in common with the enjoyable yet challenging task of stringing things together.
Duncan Sheik played with a classical string quartet of two violins, a cello and viola (Madison native Marla Hansen) as well as a drummer/percussionist and opener Holly Brook, who took the reigns on backing vocals and keyboards.
The evening began with "White Limousine," the title track of his 2006 release. The tune followed the classic, melancholy Sheik formula: start out soft and light with mere vocals and guitar and then kick in at the chorus with a dramatic boost from the string section. This cycle washed, rinsed, and repeated for the first five songs and left me utterly soggy. Yes, on their own, these tunes are simultaneously pretty and dark, an echo of what lines the ears post-heartbreak. But the pattern became boring and uninspired -- especially since Sheik has so much more to offer.
The first rather monochromatic set of songs made me wonder if Sheik turned to musical theater because it requires composers to stick to a cohesive theme. But now I just think he needs to reexamine his set list. The three-song teaser from "Spring Awakening" made me want to check out his theatrical efforts. Sheik displayed a knack for dramatic, emotional crescendos that was anything but formulaic.
Holly Brook took the lead on the first two songs. Her voice was pretty, but she had difficulty projecting into the microphone. "Touch Me," a glorious duet about young love, sealed the deal that any touring production of this show must be seen.
It sounds like Mr. Sheik has been listening to his Elliot Smith to perfect his whispered, nasal sensitive-man vocals. He's no longer young and whiney -- he's mature and painfully, beautifully sad. It makes sense Sheik would go the theatrical route. He's brimming with woeful lonely emotion, which he noted after his fifth tune -- "Ok, that's the end of my wuss rock." Even his slick, fashionista art image has grown into a bearded contusion of his former self.
Sheik's ability to be right-on with the theatrical tunes proves he does have great ability. However, if he keeps shunning his acute pop sensibilities, he should jump fully into the theater niche. At the end of the evening, Sheik was pushed on stage one last time by Holly Brook. He perfunctorily serenaded the crowd solo with his breakout hit "Barely Breathing."
It might have been the most horribly sad and embarrassing thing I have ever witnessed. Rushing through at lightening speed, tripping up the lyrics, and grimacing like a man against his will, I felt bad for Duncan Sheik. Sure he walked off with a sheepish grin and a respectful thank you, but nothing could hide his lack of fire for that song.
Some people will always go to shows for that one hit, but it is too bad that this song garnered the most applause. It is too bad because Sheik is better than that. Granted, his past is also quite good; it's not like he was a Backstreet Boy. His self-titled debut was a solid album, and it is a shame he is no longer ok with playing material from it. But if moving on was really the issue, I'd have done without the single that started it and let it become just another one in the catalog.
Sheik's show was truly like that jar of beads: a bunch of pretty little things sitting in a jar with the potential to make something beautiful. For now, the beads and the songs just wait displaced.