We were just settling in to a meal of steamed seafoods at Fishmongers' Cafe in Plano (hotchpot of Dutch mussels for her, skewer of shrimp and scallops for him)when our persual of the Dallas Observer alternative paper caused us to realize (or more accurately, confirm) that Duncan Sheik and Vienna Teng were playing the Sons of Hermann Hall tonight.
We drove to the Deep Ellum region of Dallas, near downtown, hip clubs and lofts and former warehouses, and found a parking space by a loft building which featured drawn aliens in the glass doorways, rather like a Residents show. We arrived just before the show began, and the show began just on time. The Sons of Hermann Hall is a fairly intimate setting, so that we had excellent chairs even though a few hundred other people were in attendance.
The show was sponsored by Bend Studio, a local yoga studio which doubles as a concert space for very small concerts. The owner of this establishment, whose name escapes me, has created a local audience for folk singers, roots singers, and singer/songwriters. This concert took place in the larger hall because its draw would exceed the 90 that Bend Studio holds.
The kind yoga teacher soul from Bend Studio, an attractive woman who is unsurprisingly well-toned, introduced the evening using words as well-chosen as the definition on her biceps. I liked especially that she sounded a Dallas theme I enjoy--that the concert was intended to be a "listening space" and not a "talking space". Then the music began.
Vienna Teng, backed by a wonderful cellist and a vibrant violinist/viola player, opened the show. I had expected, based on press reports, for Ms. Teng's music to be quirky in the way that Abra Moore's music or that curious woman with the harp music is quirky. Instead, Ms. Teng is an unabashed pop singer-songwriter, who manages to play complex arrangements while she sings intelligent but not sarcastic lyrics over unabashedly traditional melodic themes. She manages to seem both contemporary and retro, and yet not twee at all. She and her backing band had a professionalism in their sound that far exceeded the lax "good enough for pop session work" that can characterize concerts in this genre.
No ointment is entirely without its fly. During the first three songs, the twentysomething woman one row ahead of us felt that her concert enjoyment would be best served by chatting with her friends. There is a time and a place for such things, as in the case of a two o'clock showing of a Don Knotts film to 7 year olds, or between songs by a Holiday Inn covers band's version of "built for comfort, not for speed" leading into a song called "tequila sunrise". Ms. Teng's gentle pop stylings were not enhanced by the chatter, which, though not loud, was needless.
At first, I was concerned, as well, that Ms. Teng's repertoire would be predictably pretty, with meat in only the right places, as with a very thin filet mignon. As she and her band warmed up, though, it turned out that she could make winning songs out of pieces which were fairly frank homages to early 1960s piano pop, early 1970s singer/songwriter fare, and an unabashed and surprising love for country-influenced melody.
The "Bend Studio" audience encapsulated some four or five generations, ranging from ten or so into their 70s. Ms. Teng spoke their language, offering dependable and not trite pop with incredible craft. It was more than "close enough for pop", but in fact, it was good. She took odd risks--her cover was, of all things, "fire and rain". But she pitch-shifted for that classic, showed off what born talent and years of voice lessons can do, and between songs spoke to the audience in a down-to-earth, engaging manner. Her stagecraft was very folkie, but her music is not really folkie at all, but unabashedly and remarkably unironically pop. By concert's end, she had the audience eating out of her hand, as she did her explicit Dolly Parton homage (but, sadly, no "Free Bird"). After her show dozens upon dozens of people stood in line with her CD, hoping to tell her "gee, I think you're good". I am not much for the salmon run to see the "celebrity", but I did buy her CD at the end of the night, when no waiting in line or hobnobbing with anyone other than the man who helped me figure out the CDs when my bifocals failed in the dark.
Duncan Sheik brought a completely different sort of band to play, a four-piece with acoustic guitar (largely played by Mr. Sheik), an electric guitar, a bass and a drum. I was thrilled to see that his lead guitarist was Gerry Leonard, who has played at one time or another with dozens of artists, including Bowie, and whose ethereal style has earned him the nickname "Spookyghost". I knew I had heard him before, but I was wracking my brain to remember which band or CD featured him (in the event, I think it was Suzanne Vega's Songs in Red and Gray that brought him to mind--I would have guessed wrong, by the way, and wrongly imagined him to be the former second guitarist for 1970s power pop band The Records).
Duncan Sheik's career has been a curious thing. His first major label album had a hit single, the wonderful "Barely Breathing" (whose lyrics might be my biography from ages 17 through 23), and a host of other sophisticated pop tunes.
Sheik repudiated this album, despite its success, in search of a rougher but also a more "art pop" sound. He has sold far fewer records since, but he retains his gift for wry lyrics, a winning vocal style, and a way with a melody.
Although by no means a speed metal festival, it's impossible to have Gerry Leonard in one's band and not rock it up just a bit. The band was vigorous and yet so very light-touched. Unlike traditonal guitar heroes, Leonard's magic is that he creates atmospheres of ringing melodic drone, integrated into each song. His playing is effortless, and yet so tremendously effective.
I felt badly for both the audience and the band. This audience was able to appreciate a pop experience like Ms. Teng's rewarding her with standing ovations. Mr. Sheik's band had a more muscular approach, and the crowd, while enthusiastic, seemed to be unable to savor the sure-handed touch of a band which can present a backdrop filled with vigor, and yet one in which the singer's every word was perfectly enunciated and easily audible. During the encores, Mr. Sheik went to a solo acoustic guitar approach, and it was clear to me that he should have reached out to this audience with that tack before that time.
For me, of course, there was tremendous connection in hearing an incredible guitarist like Gerry Leonard. He reminded me of musicians I enjoy like Bill Nelson and David Sylvian. His shimmering sound was a pure delight. I'd love to hear Leonard when he accompanies Bowie, because his style would fit so well with Eno-trilogy-era Bowie songs.
It has been years since I bought a Duncan Sheik CD, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised that his sound retains the things I loved about him while losing the dross of over-production. His decision to eschew the charts, for all its "Harvest"-imitative melodrama, may well have been the right one. When he pulled up the cellist and the violinist to join his band, it was all very effective, particularly as they were such crowd-pleasers.
The attractive woman one row up, whom we'll call Ms. Fly, felt the need to engage her significant other (there seemed to be some massive musical-chairs-just-which-one-am-I-here-w
I know you can guess the coda. When Duncan finished his set, and came out with his acoustic guitar for the first encore, Ms. Fly was the one who called out in a beer-y, pleading voice play "Barely Breathing, please!". Having chatted through rich and melodic winning songs, she was there to have the instant gratification of the top 10 single. I think that commercial telephone services for the lust-lorn work on the same principle.
Mr. Sheik resisted her importunate advances, playing "Mr. Chess". Who can resist a thinking man with a low-key demeanor who sings songs with chess metaphors? Perhaps someone, but I enjoyed the song immensely. Then, for a second encore, Mr. Sheik launched into "Barely Breathing",with an acoustic reading in which the band joined in mid-song. I had almost hoped he wouldn't play it, in a sign of Fly-swattery defiance, but I was nonetheless glad when he played it anyway. I always appreciate it when artists play songs people like, even when the single was not their own favorite.
Both shows were great, and Bend Studio is to be commended for sponsoring the show. I passed the Bend Studio owner,
and meant to shake her yoga-strengthened hand and tell her that her musical evening was like a reverse lotus drinking bird for my soul, but I forewent the opportunity. Who knows? There is always myspace, the new "thank you" note.
It is late now, and I am tired, and odd men come tomorrow to tint our house windows against the sun. But I'm glad we went to such a great show tonight.