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Posted April 16, 2012, at 9 a.m.; updated at 10:28 p.m.
Singer-songwriter and composer Duncan Sheik is known for his hit “Barely Breathing” and the Tony-, Grammy- and Olivier-winning “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, but what might be surprising is Sheik’s wit and charm onstage, both of which were on full display Sunday night in a tour kickoff with fellow singer-songwriter turned music-theater composer Suzanne Vega at Cabaret Jazz in the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown’s Symphony Park.
Taking the stage in the brand-new, intimate venue, Sheik, dressed dapperly in a cream-colored suit, brown plaid shirt and brown shoes, remarked, “Hello, this is very fancy,” eliciting laughter from the packed house. He started the evening with the Cure’s “Kyoto Song.” “That was a dark song to start off the show. I ran in North Las Vegas this morning … so I’m feeling a little Gothic.” Before starting “Wishful Thinking” from “Great Expectations” and while tuning his instrument, he said, “The desert is so obnoxious to guitars.”
His set list and quips also included the new and unrecorded “Half a Room” (“What they gave me at the Golden Nugget”); “Lay Down Your Weapons” (“… and Machine Guns” … he proclaimed “Disaster!” while trying to tune Vega’s “loud” guitar, which he was inexplicably using for the song); and “Better Left Unsaid.” Next up was Depeche Mode’s “Stripped,” at which point before starting, he labeled himself “the Rod Stewart of ’80s cover tunes … I just keep doing them over and over and over and over. … I could go on tour with Seal and Rod Stewart.”
Upon finishing, he laughed and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so obnoxious about Rod Stewart. [There’s that word again.] I liked his music up until 1975.” “I’m going to be in trouble with the music police!” He finished his solo performance with “Barely Breathing” (“Here’s a pop song for you”) and the audience sing-along “Shout” by Tears for Fears (the audience sang along).
Vega, whose voice is surprisingly similar to Taylor Swift’s, is sharing the bill with Sheik. She was captivating (she wore bright red lipstick and a top hat and said “thank you” and bowed after many of her songs), and the audience loved both singer-songwriters equally. Her set list included “Marlene on the Wall” (about Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich) and “Caramel.”
From the musical “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” which she wrote, stars and is now tweaking (Sheik contributed music to the project and returned to the stage to perform with Vega), she performed “New York Is My Destination,” “Anne Marie” (about a lesbian affair with a European socialite) and “Harper Lee” (about the “To Kill a Mockingbird Author”). Vega finished her set with “The Queen and the Soldier,” “Luka,” an energized “Tom’s Diner,” “Blood Makes Noise” and “Calypso.”
Sheik and Vega have two performances at Cabaret Jazz tonight -- at 7 and 9:30 -- before hitting the road for California, Kansas, New York, New Jersey and Virginia. Their performance was one of the most intimate and enjoyable I’ve experienced in 4 years in Las Vegas; if would be a shame to miss them at Cabaret Jazz. For more information and ticketing, go to TheSmithCenter.com.
Q&A WITH DUNCAN SHEIK
I talked via cell phone with Sheik, who was at home in New York, about a week before he arrived in Las Vegas over the weekend. He must’ve been Blue Toothing it in his car because, at one point, he had to stop the interview to call me back because he needed to buy gas.
Don Chareunsy: You’ve had a successful and illustrious career.
Duncan Sheik: No! I’d say rowdy, crazy and rebellious!
D.C.: Yes, right! How did the tour and partnership with Suzanne Vega come about?
D.S.: Suzanne and have I been acquaintances for a long time -- we both practice Buddhism. In 1997, after touring with my first record and she on her third or fourth record, we reconnected a few years later through guitar player Jerry Leonard. Suzanne wanted to write a show about Carson McCullers. We were doing music theater in New York.
D.C.: So you’ve toured together before?
D.S.: In the summer of 2010, we toured the U.K. and other parts of Europe. I opened for her overseas, and we did really well in Europe -- we performed for 25,000 in Poland. This was after our Carson McCullers work.
D.C.: What can the audiences at the Smith Center here in Las Vegas expect on April 15 and 16?
D.S.: I’ll play a few songs from the new record, new material, plus my catalog, then Suzanne will perform, then a few songs from the Carson McCullers show. It’s a showcase for everybody -- an ensemble!
D.C.: Going back to your illustrious and successful career in music, Broadway and film (Tony, Grammy and Olivier awards). Is one of the areas particularly enjoyable or your favorite?
D.S.: I just like writing and recording songs. And if it’s not songs, then as a composer with film music. I love diving in and creating music out of a vacuum. Sometimes there are asterisks, and it’s wonderful. It sustains me.
D.C.: We’re about the same age, and I love 1980s songs. What was the inspiration for your album “Covers 80s”? Who were some of your favorites, and why?
D.S.: I would be with friends, and they would ask, “Why don’t you play some songs?” I don’t want to play my own songs all the time! And I didn’t want to perform covers everyone hears and would expect from me. One Radiohead and one Oasis, and the set is over. I wanted to learn other songs people knew and wanted to hear -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, David Bowie.
My big influences as a teenager got me interested in writing and recording. Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, the Smiths, New Order, Psychedelic Furs and the Cure meant a lot to me emotionally and spiritually in my teens. I wanted to pay homage to these bands and artists. Sometimes they don't get the credit for writing these great, moving songs.
D.C.: Favorite songs?
D.S.: I tend to like whole albums. The Blue Nile’s “Walk Across the Rooftops,” Talk Talk’s “The Colour of Spring,” New Order’s “Power, Corruption & Lies” and Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration.”
D.C.: What are you working on now besides the tour? “American Psycho” for Broadway?
D.S.: We’re doing a production of “The Nightingale” based on Hans Christian Andersen at La Jolla Rep this summer. And, yes, “American Psycho.” It’s a lot of fun -- it’s going to be a really cool, outrageous piece of theater. There’s going to be a minute, though, before that’s onstage. And I’m writing a new record for myself.
D.C.: I worked in San Diego/La Jolla before Las Vegas. It must be a culture shock versus New York?
D.S.: The weather is so great, and the beach is there. I have no complaints about hanging out there for a couple of months. Plus, La Jolla Rep and the Old Globe are two of the best places in the country for developing new material.
D.C.: Is there someone you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet in your career?
D.S.: That’s an interesting question. There are so many film directors and theater people and musicians and bands that I admire and respect, like Bjork and the Radiohead guys. Those collaborations -- you find a good reason to make them happen -- but sometimes I let the universe determine it for me.
D.C.: Who does Duncan Sheik listen to on his iPod or in his car?
D.S.: Right now this Swedish band Dungen -- it’s almost like my first name. Their new record is really cool. I don’t have an iPod. Hmmm … the rinse cycle? It’s pretty diffuse.
D.C.: Have you been to Las Vegas before?
D.S.: Oh, of course, yes!
(Our interview is stopped so that Sheik can buy gas. He calls back in a few minutes.)
D.C.: What do you like to do here while you’re in town?
D.S.: This won’t be popular with the hotels, but I don’t like to gamble. I like seeing certain spectacle shows like “O.” … But I don’t like the stereotypical experience. Maybe I’ll go to Lake Mead and go water skiing. I like to get out of Dodge during the day.
Don Chareunsy is editor of VegasDeLuxe.com and arts and entertainment editor of LasVegasSun.com.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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