Ben Folds in Los Angeles
When I first heard Ben Folds Five while driving in 1995 I nearly crashed my car in excitement. I’d never heard anything like it before. A funny, smart, musical piano-based trio sang “Underground” on the radio, a week later I overpaid for the album at CD World, a few years later I sang their songs to my twin daughters, and in 2012 the brainwashing culminated in a Ben Folds Five reunion performance with all three of my children in attendance.
At the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday night, my daughter and I took in a solo Ben Folds show of his “Paper Airplane Request Tour” and enjoyed an impressive and somewhat unpredictable performance, as Folds took audience recommendations for the last half of the evening (via paper airplanes thrown onto the stage). My other daughter had attended his Louisville performance last April and was somewhat disappointed with the song selection, as Folds leaned too heavily on familiar territory. The paper airplane tour has helped to alleviate this tendency, and a quick glance at the shows thus far confirms that the second halves of have been completely different, and the loose nature of the programs have also allowed Ben to improv songs on the spot for comedic effect. At Sunday’s concert he performed two ad-libbed songs – one for a man in the audience who was being a dick and another for the theater where he was performing – and both were hilarious.
Folds is an exceptional piano player, something I don’t think I fully realized until this performance. When I watched Folds and Rufus Wainwright perform back in 2004 at Ravinia in Chicago the latter’s piano skills stood out to me, but Folds is right up there, exhibiting not only his own unique style and sound (something very difficult to achieve on the piano) but also very technical runs and hand independence that far surpass anything Elton John or Billy Joel are capable of at the piano. Because of this, an entire evening of piano never got old; Folds has enough tricks up his sleeve to make the last song sound as engaging as the first.
Aside from skipping the repertoire of the last Ben Folds Five release and his collaboration with Nick Hornby, each of his albums were well represented on Sunday, including his most recent effort, So There, whose songs were much more vibrant and effective as a solo performance than on the album that highlighted an accompanying sextet.
Like James Taylor, Folds is able to introduce a song as if it’s the first time he’s ever done so, with an engagingly dry wit and timing. The most compelling may have been his prelude to “Not a Fan,” during which he recounted a moment after a Cincinnati concert when a boyfriend of a fan pulled a knife on him. Apparently some people can really get worked up over music.
The last song of the first set included a short drum duet and piano duet with singer Josh Groban (who knew?) and then the airplanes flew and littered the stage, resulting in some deep cuts that had Folds slightly stumped. “Redneck Past” required a cheat sheet and Folds stumbled in the middle section of “Kyle from Connecticut,” but the rest of set was more familiar. A 17 year-old aspiring actress who sat in front of me went crazy when Folds began “Emaline,” and my daughter and I high-fived during “Cologne,” an example of one of the singer’s biggest talents – composing beautifully heart-wrenching songs. That fans actually threw airplanes onstage to request “The Luckiest” and “Gracie” was a disappointment (that’s what you wanted him to play out of his entire repertoire?) but “Narcolepsy” and “Where’s Summer B.” helped redeem that audience in my eyes.
Prior to this performance I admit that Folds had grown a little stale in my eyes. His past four albums haven’t excited me nearly as much as his past efforts (the last one to grab me was Way to Normal), but this performance convinced me that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. A more motivated version of me would spend the next year dissecting his songs and piano playing to really get a better handle on his craft. For now, I’ll have to settle for recording my own piano-based trio sometime this winter for my next album, hopefully with a unique result, but undoubtedly owing a great deal to the man that paved the way.