Ben Folds has been writing piano rock oscillating between sardonic humor and commentary on the human condition since his beginnings with Ben Folds Five. Along the way, he's been cast as many things -- a father, a joker, a pissed off dude -- but above all, he's remained an entertainer. Lonely Avenue, his latest creative venture, is a collaboration with Nick Hornby, the British author responsible for High Fidelity and About A Boy. Hornby provided the lyrics, while Folds provided the music.
Taking the stage with a trio of live musicians, Folds wasted no time diving straight into Lonely Avenue songs. "Levi Johnston's Blues" is typical of Fold's sense of humor; the song imagines that upon receiving news that Bristol Palin is pregnant and wanted to get married, Levi Johnston just wants to blow it off and do standard Alaskan stuff like hunting moose and going snowboarding.
"Doc Pomus" was introduced as the first song Folds wrote with Nick Hornby. "He writes books. This song is kind of like a book," he said, portraying the songwriter that struggled with polio and wrote many pop songs, including Elvis Presley's "Suspicion" and Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue."
The audience quickly warmed up and cheered for "Gone." It was a good turn out for a Monday night, although I was expecting a slightly larger crowd. Maybe the rest bought Bob Dylan tickets.
Folds kept things lighthearted with his token improvisation song, "Rock This Bitch." He explained that he flew from Tucson to Nashville to work on some songs, then flew to Phoenix and was excited about the prospects of rain, but it was just dust. "I was happy about the rain, but it was not rain, it was evil. How do you live with that shit?"
On the plane ride to Phoenix, he was having a hard time sleeping and did not want to take a sleeping pill. He said he was not much of a drinker, but thought a few gin and tonics would help him sleep. "I'm not drunk, I just feel strange. That sandstorm was really strange," he said, elaborating that the weather in the southwest is the exact opposite of what he's used to in the northeast. Apparently he's following the example of Bruce Springsteen, who also has a history of sparse performances in the southwest.
Imitating Springsteen, Folds lowered his voice and improvised a song about the cool desert wind blowing right up his ass. "I suck, I'm so sorry, that was terrible, I love Bruce Springsteen," he said, explaining that he has been on a Springsteen kick lately and plans on using his 1975-1985 live recordings as inspiration for a Ben Folds retrospective. "The best live discs we have heard were Bruce Springsteen's. We want to make it a quarter as good and here I am mocking him, and now I ruined my voice in five minutes."
His voice was just fine for "Belinda" and "Sleazy," a Ke$ha cover, once again switching back and forth between grim and comical songwriting. Back in January, Folds "picked the number one song on iTunes and it was Ke$ha. It didn't do so well, it was number one for a couple hours and actually got knocked off by another Ke$ha song. It's my favorite thing to do in the set. When I got my degree from entertainer school, they told us to never admit that it was our favorite moment early in the set because it's all downhill from there. And it's all downhill from here, now we're just going through the motions."
Folds used his self-deprecating humor to launch into one of the funniest songs of the evening. He softened the main vocals as the keyboardist sang "It's Sleazy" in a deep voice. Folds prompted the crowd to wave as he stood up to rap the last lines.
From the moment a nearby couple stole a kiss at the beginning of "You to Thank," Folds had nonstop audience participation. Fans softly sang along about as loud as Folds while somehow remaining harmonious and not too off key. Things picked up during "Effington," as the percussionist sat on the edge of the stage and went into a tambourine frenzy while the crowd sang and clapped.
"Brick" featured Folds singing and playing piano by himself. Although the cello in the original recording sounds fantastic, the simplicity of this version made the song that much more effective. The audience quietly sang along, creating a haunting atmosphere transporting us back to the exact moment the narrator and his girlfriend sold their Christmas presents to fund an abortion.
"Annie Waits" was probably the best follow up to "Brick." After such a somber moment, a funny cover would have been poorly timed. Fans were back in good spirits as requests started flooding in, notably for Folds' cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit."
Met with a sea of various requests, Folds said, "There's nothing like a well-timed request. When a dude is speaking in the microphone, he can't hear you, but when you yell during that one second of silence..." interrupted by a fan shouting, "Philosophy!" He replied, "That's what I'm talking about." The song was played back to back with part of Liz Phair's "Chopsticks," as the crowd laughed at the imagery of "doing it backwards so we can watch TV."
Folds told a story about his roommate in college who got in a big fight with his girlfriend, who got so angry that she stabbed his basketball. He could have been an athlete, musician, or model, but didn't get too far because he always talked like Fonzi. Folds clearly remembers a song he wrote about won tons and eggrolls, which he said was pretty bad, since his friend excels in "songs about doo doo." "He had a way with words when it came to shit. This song has nothing to do with anything I said except for stabbing a basketball," providing a colorful backstory for "Bitch Went Nuts." But really, who stabs a basketball?
"Zak and Sara" was the big fan favorite of the evening, inciting most to dance and loudly sang along. At the end of the song, Folds stood up, grabbed a Nord keyboard and held it upright like a guitar, using one hand to support it and the other to play. He hoisted the keyboard behind his head and still managed to play all the notes.
After "Kate," the crowd clapped and cheered nonstop until Folds returned for an encore. He sat behind the piano and introduced "The Luckiest" as "a really balls out rocker. Not really, this is for my wife." The audience sang quietly, but the mood was still enough to hear the flicker of a lighter halfway across the room.
Joined by the rest of the band, Folds said, "Thank you for being so nice to us. I think the dust makes you cool, the dust makes you stronger," then sang a few lines of Kansas' "Dust in the Wind." Admitting that he didn't really know the lyrics, he switched to "Carry on my Wayward Son." He had a bit more luck, but eventually changed the words to "Even though I was an asshole I still sang and fucked the song up."
Folds maximized audience participation by assigning fans with various vocal capacities to sing "Not the Same." Waving his arms like a conductor, Folds had the crowd repeat the escalating ahhs a few times. Once the song ended, Folds smiled, gave an OK sign, took a bow, and silently exited the stage.
1. Levi Johnston's Blues
2. Doc Pomus
4. Rock This Bitch- Dust Storm Edition
5. Song About Bruce Springsteen
7. Sleazy (Ke$ha)
8. Sentimental Guy
9. You to Thank
11. Still Fighting It
14. You Don't Know Me
15. Fred Jones, Part 2
17. Annie Waits
19. Chopsticks (Liz Phair)
21. Bitch Went Nuts
22. Zak and Sara
25. The Luckiest
26. Dust in the Wind (Kansas)
27. Carry on my Wayward Son (Kansas)
28. Not the Same
Last Night: Ben Folds at Marquee Theatre
Personal Bias: I didn't know much more than "Brick" and "Zak and Sara."
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The Crowd: Lots of couples in their late 20s/early 30s.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I'm glad he played Kansas instead of 'Rockin' the Suburbs.'"
Random Notebook Dump: Ben forgot about Dre.