By John Dickerson
See more shots in our Ben Folds slide show.
Ben Folds may be 42 years old, but his songs still bring out the white college kid/yuppie demographic like a liquidation sale at Urban Outfitters. Said white folk arrived at Gammage Theater in droves last night, donning fedoras, chunky artist glasses and hailing from suburbs across the valley.
Mr. Folds did not disappoint his loyal fans. In fact, the man transmitted a very real and raw energy – even when pounding out classics that he’s played thousands of times, for tens of thousands of fans.
Folds’ body language and voice both belied that the artist has been doing this for 20 years now. He hardly sat on his piano stool – opting usually to stand with one leg forward (like someone doing squats in the gym), lean his head over the keys of the piano and pound the ivory from end to end.
When the man performs a slide from the low to high keys, he slams his entire right forearm onto the keys. Usually his left hand is still fiddling another tune, and of course he’s singing, too.
From hard rocking thumps to delicate runs and pauses worthy of Ray Charles, Folds’ piano playing was a live performance treat. Folks seated in the front third of the auditorium could see his hands literally turn to a blur when he really lit into a song.
Only those of us in the orchestra pit saw Folds’ bandaid go flying off his injured finger during one of his most intense runs. It happened as he was singing “You to Thank,” a classic about newlyweds battling second thoughts. (The song makes more sense now that Folds has been divorced and remarried a handful of times.) He finished the song without hesitation and subtly rewrapped his finger as he introduced the next song.
Like any artist with a new album to sell, Folds played lots of songs from his newest release, Way To Normal. But it was his oldies (“Annie Waits,” “Fair,” “Still Fighting It,” “Philosophy,” etc.) that got the theater on its feet.
Folds brought his lovable dorky humor with -- from giant frown faces that walk out on stage during “The Frown Song” to self-deprecating humor and his cheeky childish grin whenever he would look out at the packed upper tiers of the theater.
Four well-trained accomplices joined Folds on stage: one on the bass, another on keyboards, and two on percussion (one on a classic drumset, the other playing everything from maracas and tambourines to a dulcimer and Revolutionary War-style stomach drum).
The second layer of percussion gives Folds songs a texture and extra rhythm that has long attracted fans, and the live performance was no difference.
Each of the other musicians sang well and provided the harmonies and backup vocals needed to produce Folds’ songs live. It was nice to hear other live voices, instead of a computer recording of Folds’ voice echoing through the auditorium.
All the vocal movement, layers of sound, rhythm and piano set a lively foundation to Folds’ lyrics – which are the final ingredient of his best songs. The man has a way of setting scenes and telling stories with words that almost anyone can relate to. That storytelling continues into the best of his new stuff, including “Cologne,” a memorable melancholy with the line “Four, Three, Two, One, I’m letting you go.”
Folds played a number of his “fake” songs that he leaked on the Internet before his album released. He played so many of them in fact – songs that aren’t even on his new album – that you couldn’t deny that guy was having a good time with himself and the audience.
Sometimes when he would look up at the three levels of people, packed to capacity, Folds would smile and then close his eyes, as if 20 years of packing out such places hasn't lost its luster.
Easily the most ironic/Folds-humorous moment of the night came during “Rockin the Suburbs.” Folds paused so the audience could sing “Ya’ll don’t know what it’s like, being male, middle class and white.”
Once the crowd really got going, the house lights came up so everyone could see that, well, everyone was middle-class and white. It was a cruel trick really, but also a tongue-in-cheek joke that was lost on many – making it even funnier for those who noticed there wasn’t much color in the crowd.
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Tricks and trade aside, there’s nothing like watching a live performer who actually writes his or her songs. There’s nothing like hearing and seeing them make the same sounds as the album – but without any computer-matronic assistance or sound editing.
Indeed, in an age of behind-the-scenes created pop stars who can’t even play instruments, Folds was a giant gulp of fresh musical air.
He’s easily one of the most gifted piano singer-songwriters of his generation. Like the best of them, nothing compares to seeing him live.