Years ago at South by Southwest, we caught a performance by a scrappy indie rock trio led by a bushy-haired exuberant singer-pianist named Ben Folds.
That band, dubbed the Ben Folds Five, would go on to experience great success thanks to the popularity of "Brick,” a tune from the group’s 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen
Twenty years on, Folds isn’t so exuberant, and he’s not nearly as scrappy. But he still puts on a helluva show.
These days, Folds prefers to sit calmly at the piano. And he cleans up pretty good too. Last night at House of Blues, where he played a two-and-a-half hour concert (with a 15-minute intermission) in front of a sold out crowd, he wore a dapper, tight-fitting black suit as he delivered two even-keeled sets of music (one set featured songs of his choosing and the other featured audience requests).
The show began with the somber ballads “Phone in a Pool” and “Annie Waits.” The cordial Folds, who regularly introduced songs by telling stories about their origins, then made up a tune centered on his song “Rock This Bitch” after a fan shouted it as a request. “There are no rules, and if there are, they’re made to be broken,” he crooned as he adlibbed the lyrics. He explained that “Rock This Bitch” is a track he generally saves for the concert’s second half.
Folds’s willingness to engage with the audience suggested that the show would be a whimsical, free wheeling affair, and it certainly lived up to the billing.
But as much as Folds would joke with fans, he put on a straight face for tunes such as “Still Fighting It,” which featured beautiful backing vocals from Tall Heights, the concert’s opening act. He instructed fans on how to sing backing vocals to “Bastard,” a tune that he said required a “four-part counterpart,” and he delivered his hit “Landed,” a gentle piano ballad that sounded like something Bruce Hornsby might play, with genuine emotion, adopting a fluttering falsetto for the tune.
“Not a Fan,” a quiet tune he introduced by telling a story about a guy who snuck backstage with a knife, segued nicely into the punchy “You Don’t Know Me,” and “Steven’s Last Night in Town” had a theatrical feel, making it sound like it could be a tune from a Bertolt Brecht play.
The concert’s first half ended with an impromptu drum solo that found Folds hammering away at a drum kit that roadies hurriedly assembled.
After an intermission, Folds returned to the stage to play audience requests. He had fans toss paper airplanes that contained their requests onto the stage. Paper airplanes of all sizes and shapes made it onto the stage, and Folds randomly picked up an airplane, read the title and played the song. He explained that he sometimes didn’t know tunes and couldn’t play every request but would try to “respect the process.”
As a result, he delivered tracks such as the fast tempo-ed “One Down,” a song that he said was challenging because it featured a “fuck ton of notes,” and "Luckiest,” a number that found him pulling off a one-handed mid-song solo before finishing with a flourish at the song’s conclusion.
Ultimately, too much of the set featured somber, introspective tunes as Folds didn’t play more raucous tracks such as “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and “My Philosophy.” But at a time when too many artists play the same set list over and over, Folds deserves credit for putting on a spontaneous show that featured plenty of ad-libbing and a unique-to-Cleveland set list.
At the show’s end, Folds graciously thanked fans for their participation, telling them, “You threw a good set at me,” before he busted into “Gracie,” a heartfelt ballad that featured Aimee Mann-like vocal phrasing. He would return to straddle his piano stool for the energetic, one-song encore that featured the Ben Folds Five song "Army."