TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2015|
Posted by: Don Saas
I'm not going to start complaining about contemporary pop music. There are tracks that still get to me -- and Adele will be Queen, always and forever. But I miss radio pop from the 90s. Part of it's nostalgia. I don't care how "refined" you think your taste in music is; music that you loved from your youth is always going to evoke a specific physical reaction. And, yeah, part of the reason that I love 90s pop is that it was the period in my life where I was first introduced to music at all. This was the 90s. Cars didn't have auxiliary radio inputs. We couldn't plug our iPods in. We couldn't connect to hyper-specialized satellite radio stations. You had what the radio gave you, and you dealt with it. But there's more to it than that. And seeing Duncan Sheik Saturday night at Carnegie Hall reminded me what made the 90s so special in the first place.
Duncan Sheik first came to national attention in 1996 with his Grammy nominated hit single, "Barely Breathing" off his self-titled debut record. And if that's all you remember about Mr. Sheik, I think he'll forgive you. He took a slightly different path than many of his peers. Although Duncan has a wealth of great pop-rock records under his belt -- including 2001's criminally underloved Phantom Moon -- he took his talents to Broadway, winning two Tony's and a Grammy for the musical Spring Awakening -- the show which launched the career of Glee/Scream Queens starlet Lea Michele -- and launching two other musicals in the year since as well. He also has an upcoming musical production of Bret Easton Ellis's controversial novel American Psycho premiering next year.
But this year saw Duncan return with his first piece of non-musical theatre music since 2006. Legerdemain is defiantly old-school in its approach to songwriting. And that leads back to what made the 90s special. Radio pop in the 90s was fluid. Counting Crows' August & Everything After has aged wonderfully because it married unforgettable pop hooks with 70s soft rock and hints of folk. The Verve created a smash hit with "Bittersweet Symphony" by finding their inner Brian Wilson with their use of chamber pop. And Duncan Sheik married acoustic guitars with light electronic elements right out of the gates to fuse rock, dance music, and ornate songwriting in a way that radio pop has never emulated since Savage Garden.
And at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night, it was that ornate and lush approach to composition that was on full display. Duncan knows his way around a hook. The fact that "Barely Breathing" was in the Hot 100 for Billboard for 55 weeks is proof of that. But even in his most well-known track -- the second to last song of the evening's encore -- the hook is secondary to atmosphere. Guitar parts are layered over each other. A light chime rings in. Lyrics that are more clever than anything you usually hear on the radio arrive. It's a song of resigned romantic desperation, and you feel it. And Saturday's performance -- mostly consisting of tracks from Duncan's latest album and a selection of songs from his musicals -- evoked that atmosphere in the rich terms that have always defined his music.
Duncan is a storyteller at heart. And during the interludes between songs, he would often dive into the real-life incidents that birthed his new music -- finding a particularly elegant piano while on tour with Suzanne Vega, jogging through an unfriendly English town near Heathrow. He brought out the female stars of his musicals to perform numbers from the shows. A dedicated cellist came out for many tracks from the evening. Somber acoustic numbers were followed by guitar-lick driven rock songs. And at no point did Duncan Sheik fail to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. You felt sadness; you wanted to dance; you got lost in the tight but uplifting groove of a guitar solo. This wasn't a collection of songs being played but a performance...a performance as intentionally designed as the individual numbers that constituted the set.
It is both not surprising that Duncan Sheik never reached the long lived mainstream recognition that "Barely Breathing" would have hinted at in 1996 but also that Duncan has cultivated an intensely loyal fanbase in the years since. His music isn't disposable. It requires engagement. And on Saturday, I was more than willing to give that attention and appreciation for one spectacularly beautiful evening.