Concert Review: Duncan Sheik at the Straz Center (with pics)

Aside from the seventy-some-odd people in the orchestra section and a lonely couple in the balcony the 1,042-seat-theater was empty on Friday night. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. “Is this it?” a woman behind me asked her daughters, “They should have canceled it.” As her daughter considerately pointed out, the small turnout might hurt Duncan’s self esteem. Somehow I don’t think he’s in a drought of self confidence at the moment.

His musical contributions to 2006’s runaway hit Spring Awakening earned him two Tony Awards in 2007 and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album in 2008. His latest musical Whisper House, based on a 2009 album of the same name, just opened and is already receiving stellar reviews. Once labeled a one-hit wonder for his 1996 debut single “Barely Breathing,” Sheik’s career has never looked so good on paper.

So, despite the fact that his audience for the evening resided in the first six rows of the theater, when a beardless Sheik stepped out onto the stage in a sharp gray suit, plaid shirt and tie he radiated appreciation. You couldn’t help but smile when this surprisingly youthful looking man of 40 approached the microphone to warmly greet our intimate gathering and deem us “the coolest people in Tampa for the evening.” Joined by atmospheric electric guitarist Gerry Leonard and singer-songwriter Holly Brook on harmonium, piano and background vocals, the trio coasted into the first song of the night, “Better to be Dead” from the album/musical Whisper House.

Prefacing the eerie, harmonious opener with a declaration that we were all ghosts from World War II for the evening, I anticipated a night of down-trodden and dreary compositions. I was pleasantly surprised that not only does Sheik possess an impressive songwriting and vocal range, but he’s also self-deprecating and even a little bit awkward. He fidgeted with his guitars during in-between song banter and gushed about his family that was in attendance. After humbly sharing his disbelief that he recently performed a song at musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, he realized he grabbed the wrong guitar and quickly exchanged it thirty seconds into the intro of the brooding folk ballad “I Don’t Believe in You.”

He seemed most invigorated by the three-song-set of tunes from Spring Awakening—a portion of the show that Brook nearly stole from underneath him with her haunting delivery of “Mama Who Bore Me.” Brook, who sounds a lot like pop songbird Inara George, filled the cavernous hall with her rich voice and captivated the hushed audience in an all too brief performance. Sheik lifted the mood with his resonating falsetto on the buoyant “Don’t Do Sadness,” while Brook interjected with the wistful counter melody “Blue Wind.” When the two joined the result was enough hypnotizing lightness to carry through the next three low-key ballads.

Surprisingly, the most ineffective moment of the night was his biggest hit single. Upon learning from a vocal audience member that the 1996 tune is her ritual house cleaning soundtrack, Sheik just couldn’t get into the song. Frankly, I didn’t blame him. When you have a catalog as diverse as his I can imagine it’s difficult to relate to a song that’s nearly 15 years old. Then again, “Barely Breathing” is likely the only song that evening the audience unanimously knew seeing as they erupted into applause upon hearing the opening chords. The irony of the moment stuck out like a sore thumb. While sold-out audiences around the world are sung the music of Spring Awakening on a nightly basis, Sheik’s own concerts attract smaller crowds than a community theater.

If anything, the ability to stay under the radar while straddling the lines of music and musical theater has made him more productive. Sheik is currently at work on a musical adaptation of American Psycho, producing Holly Brook’s latest album, his own record of covers and another album of new material. If Friday night’s set list is any indication of his direction for the cover album, fans are in for a treat. After welcoming opening act Entropy Ensemble back on stage for the closing number Sheik tore into an exquisitely beautiful cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” that sent me out the door with a swelled heart and a smile on my face. Good thing it wasn’t canceled.

Set list:

Better to Be Dead

The Tale of Solomon Snell

I Don’t Believe In You

Take A Bow

Mama Who Bore Me

Touch Me

Don’t Do Sadness/ Blue Wind

Half A Room

Ghost in You (Psychedelic Furs)

Stripped (Depeche Mode)

On a High

Such Reveries

Barely Breathing


I Wish For Sun to Come Out

Fake Plastic Trees (Radiohead) w/ openers Entropy Ensemble

It was twenty minutes to show time when I stepped inside Ferguson Hall to take my seat. I slide into the comfy chair and feasted my eyes on the bevy of instruments covering the stage: an upright bass, cello, harmonium, a whopping seven acoustic guitars, drums, a baby grand piano and a lone electric guitar. Having never seen Duncan Sheik or opening instrumental quintet Entropy Ensemble live I wondered which act would be using all of these instruments. As I looked around the theater I realized the more appropriate question: who would be here to hear them?


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