Duncan Sheik comes to afterHOURS

Duncan Sheik comes to afterHOURS

By Marc Larocque

About 85 people wait for singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik to grace a glowing stage with his airy and sometimes somber songs at afterHOURS Wednesday night. Blue, green and yellow lights gleam over the glossy mahogany surfaces of six guitars and kick drum skin.

Some members of the crowd were there to hear “Barely Breathing,” the 1997 smash hit off his self-titled album that put Sheik on the music map. But there were also some longtime fans, like Brittany Malitsky, a middler English and cinema studies major who listens to his entire discography.

“For half of my life – since I was 10 – I’ve been enjoying the brilliant way he is always experimenting with new sounds and concepts,” she said before Sheik performed. “So, I’m more than thrilled to see him at such an intimate venue as afterHOURS tonight.”

Sheik is not for the typical afterHOURS audience, said Nani Stoick, vice president of the Music and Entertainment Industry Student Association (MEISA), the group that invited Sheik to play.

“We’ve been having some pretty lame bands at afterHOURS and we think Duncan Sheik has a certain something different,” she said. “His music is more chill. He’s a really nice guy.”

As members of Sheik’s technical crew made adjustments to microphones, Sheik, along with the rest of his musicians, were in Northeastern’s Sacred Space, chanting as he does before every show, said Stoick, who reserved the Space for him. Sheik, 38, has been practicing Nichiren Buddhism since he was 19 years old.

“A couple of my string players hadn’t chanted before tonight,” Sheik said. “But they seemed to like it.”

The show was the first time Sheik performed select songs from “Spring Awakening,” a Broadway musical dealing with the angst of teenage sexuality. He wrote and composed the score. The musical also spurred Sheik to use a string quartet in his music, a group that now joins him on tour.

It was also the first time he would play to an audience since touring last summer and finishing the score for “Spring Awakening.”

After the crowd waited almost two hours, since one of his string players failed to show up, the bearded Sheik, wearing a plaid shirt, took the stage. He kicked off “For you I’d/Patiently wait/It’d be great/If you’re early/But all right/If you’re late,” in his first song, “For You.”

Halfway through “Genius,” which Sheik called his “only rock song,” his guitar amplification fluctuated on and off.

“This kind of stuff happens all the time and you just have to deal with it the best you can,” he said. “Luckily I have a bunch of guitars up here to swap them out when they are misbehaving.”

Like the late acoustic legend Nick Drake, to whom he is often compared, Sheik uses multiple guitars set to different tunings for his songs.

“There is no tuning I am more prone to than another,” said Sheik, who admitted to a “patchy” music education. He said he took a few music classes when he was young, along with a session at a music summer camp.

During the song “Nothing Fades,” he fluttered up airy arpeggios chiming away, alternating bright high notes that he let resonate on the way down. The drummer complemented them with an eloquent rhythm: brush style sticks rapping and dragging, slapping and tapping.

The tension rose steadily as the chord progression climbed. Then, suddenly, CLASH! as the drummer bashed the scarcely used gong. “Neither are you born/Sometimes still you mourn,” Sheik sang.

Sometimes Sheik’s voice tiptoed out of range during poignant parts of songs and quavered in a style found in Dave Matthews’ singing.

Throughout his set, Sheik layered on pre-recorded tracks laden with ambient textures and loops of leaden synth melodies reminiscent of sounds heard in space. It was clear, not cloudy.

Sheik then took it home with maudlin moans to Mom in “Fantastic Toys and Corduroys.” “Fighting words/How they sound absurd/When it’s you/Who gave me life,” he sang over a waltz rhythm, or 3/4 time, that he employed regularly.

As the show ended around midnight, some audience members were at the edge of their seats holding cameras, but also, some seemed sleepy. Sheik mingled with students and posed with those waiting for photos.

“One of them told me that he had made a tape for his mom and put ‘Fantastic Toys and Corduroys,’ on it,” he said. “And one girl said ‘Spring Awakening’ really changed her life. Things like this mean so much to me.”

It was the first time Sheik performed at Northeastern, although he has performed in Boston many times.

Sheik also met with members of Northeastern’s Soka Gakkai International World Peace Buddhist Club after the show.

“I wanted to know if any of your songs have anything to do with your practice,” said Sandra Hussey, a middler political science major and president of the club. “We just started our own campus club here.”

Sheik answered Hussey by invoking his college years.

“All of my songs were inspired through my practice,” Sheik said. “When I was at Brown University, we only had three members. But it was great.”

Though Bryant Reyes, a freshman civil engineering major, was “dragged” to afterHOURS by his roommate, he said Sheik’s performance impressed him.

“The performance was a pleasant surprise even though I thought he was going to be younger,” he said. “He seems more underground than usual post-punk type bands that I’ve seen at afterHOURS.”

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