Tucked back into the woods in the little town of Arden, Arden Gild Hall seems to blend with the forest around it. More than a century ago, this building served as a barn. Now it is a rustic performance space that features talent from all over the world.
I am here on a pleasant March evening to see award-winning, internationally renowned singer, songwriter and composer Duncan Sheik – to experience his concert “the Arden way.”
The town is named after the forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “Arden was started as this kind of intentional community by some eccentrics from Philadelphia,” explains Ron Ozer, President of Arden Concert Gild. Ozer has been with the Arden Club for about 15 years and has been running the Concert Gild for eight years. “The idea was, for these people, [that Arden] was like their court in exile. They’d go into the woods and they’d do summer performances. There were craft looms and tile makers and it was all a part of the William Morris Arts and Crafts Movement.”
From these creative roots, a friendly arts community grew. Ozer says that the neighborly feeling was one of the major reasons he relocated his family to Arden.
Entering the hall, I pass a sign that proclaims “Arden – Ye Are Welcome Hither.” There is a light chatter in the room as the audience prepares for the opening act to take the stage. Everyone seems to know everyone and, despite being from out of town, I do not feel out of place.
In the century since the barn was converted into a performance space, there have been some additions and improvements, but the beams show the age of the structure. The inside is primarily wood and earthy tones – it feels as if the venue was erected by nature itself. The smell of fireplaces and burning wood fills the room – a very welcoming scent and one of personal delight. To my left, spotlights are focused on a portrait of Shakespeare that sits atop a cobblestone decoration on the wall. The stage is ornamented with a plethora of instruments – an electric guitar rig, keyboard, accordion and seven (yes, SEVEN) acoustic guitars.
There is a sense of excitement in the comfort of the room. People are buzzing about Duncan Sheik. He has returned to Arden Gild Hall after having played here in 2007, just days before the announcement of the Tony Award nominations. Sheik’s musical, Spring Awakening, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won eight. (One of the awards was won by John Gallagher, Jr. – a Wilmington native – for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical). Three years later, Sheik’s return coincides with the release of his new musical entitled Whisper House.
Opening for Sheik is Entropy Ensemble, a South Carolina-based instrumental group that creates instrumental arrangements from the music of Radiohead. According to Ozer, Entropy Ensemble is normally a six-piece group: a keyboard, three strings, a flute and a drummer. The fact that only two of its members are at the Duncan Sheik show certainly does not take away from their performance. Keyboardist and creator of the project, Andrew Walker, and violinist Javier Orman captivated the audience from the very beginning. Their sound is incredibly rich and haunting at times with emotion-laden music and complicated melodies. Not only is the musicianship impeccable, but their humor adds to the experience: At one point, Walker removes his over shirt and Orman makes a wolf-whistle with his violin.
Orman is to his violin what Steve Vai is to the guitar. His range is fascinating; in one song he moves from smooth, fluid sounds to sharp, piercing passages. The audience is extremely receptive to this new style of music – after a “big rock finish,” the men receive a standing ovation.
The lights come up in the hall and the excitement in the room is elevated. The range of audience members is astounding. It not only includes a teenage crowd, those who know Sheik from Spring Awakening, but also an older crowd who remember Sheik from “Barely Breathing” – the Grammy-nominated single from his self-titled debut album.
“His best songs are very lush and beautiful,” says Ozer, who has seen Sheik perform before with a 12-piece group and “a lot of different instruments.” This time, Sheik is performing with a trio.
To my left in the crowd are Beth Tucker and Steve Swiss. Tucker saw Sheik at the WXPN singer/songwriter Weekend and says that she was blown away by his performance. She relates to Ozer’s story – she’d seen him with a larger band and says that part of what was so entertaining about Sheik and his group was that they kept switching instruments, demonstrating a wide array of musical ability.
This show, though a more low-key set-up, is much the same. Holly Brook, singer/songwriter and one of the cast of Whisper House, bounces between the keyboard and accordion while offering her liquid-smooth vocal talent. Sheik is also accompanied by electric guitarist Jerry Leonard.
[amazon-product align=”left” style=”padding:10px 10px 10px 0;”]B001KL3GXG[/amazon-product]Beginning with songs from Whisper House, Sheik jokingly says he’s decided to perform the songs in the order of “most morose to least morose.” Throughout his set, Sheik keeps up a lighthearted banter with his audience – when a member requests a song, he playfully replies, surrounded by his seven guitars, “I didn’t bring the right guitar for that one.”
The musicianship of Sheik and his band is remarkable. The band members follow Sheik as he leads them through a stylistic array of material. Though there are only three for this performance, their sound is full-bodied and blasts the audience with solid emotion. The harmonies are impeccable – one of Brook’s many talents. Acoustically, the room only enhances the musicality; the sounds blend perfectly and there is not a bad seat in the house (many venues have a “sweet spot” where the sound is best – usually near the sound booth). After playing a 95-minute set, Sheik and his band members leave the audience on its feet.
As an encore, Entropy Ensemble joins Sheik and company on stage to perform Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.”
So what’s next at Arden? Ozer says that there is a fundraiser being held April 10 and that the proceeds will go to the ongoing restoration of Gild Hall. On May 9, Gild Hall will feature Jill Sobule for Mother’s Day; jazz artist Cat Russell plays on May 22. Also in the works is the Arden Music Festival on June 12.
Many in the audience, including myself, cannot wait to make the trip back to Arden and see it in the spring. I imagine the foliage is something to be admired. I’d like to experience a show at Arden’s Field Theatre – perhaps their production of As You Like It scheduled for later this season (in which Ozer is playing Corin the Shepherd) – or attend another concert. I have a feeling that many memorable experiences are waiting to be had in the essence of Arden.