A Ben Folds show isn't just a live performance of his latest album. It's a crackpot journey through the musician's past, musically and psychologically. Plus, it's one that turns the mirror on the crowd's inner weirdos and angry, dorky tendencies. But above all, it's fun as heck, as last night's show at Overture Center proved.
Technically, this concert was devoted to his new album, Lonely Avenue, a collaboration with Nick Hornby, the English author and music nut who penned High Fidelity. Hornby wrote the lyrics, which he emailed to Folds one song at a time. Folds, in turn, wrote melodies that seemed to fit the words, producing some especially poignant moments and cheeky flashes of brilliance.
Folds and his band stormed the stage as literally as one can storm a concert hall, with cartwheels and push-ups and lots of feigned destruction of instruments, making fans cheer and jostle in their seats, beer-filled Overture sippy cups held high. Then the crowd got cozy with "Doc Pomus," a ballad-esque ode to the famous blues singer and songwriter Jerome Solon Felder, who wrote hits such as "This Magic Moment," "Viva Las Vegas" and the Ray Charles classic "Lonely Avenue." If anything, this was Folds' acknowledgment that he's not just a sassy, piano-pummeling dude with a penchant for 1970s pop and a punk-rock attitude. He's a songwriter, a master of the power-pop craft.
Then, the show pivoted into hilarious territory as Folds explained one of the band's latest projects: its own rendition of whichever song became the next number-one hit on iTunes. As it turned out, that song was Ke$ha's "Sleazy."
"We're trying to get this back up to the number-one spot," Folds joked. "Some of this has been re-harmonized. Well, I didn't have to re-harm this one, I had to harm it."
Perched in front of his trusty Baldwin piano, Folds began the song with a faux earnestness that drew snorts and giggles from the four jam-packed tiers of fans. Rapping to his arpeggios, he took on a Beastie Boys-meets-Beethoven vibe for a few moments, while his bassist nailed the oh-so-profound lyric "Rat-a-tat-tat on your dum-dum drum."
"Belinda," the ballad that closes Lonely Avenue, showcased Folds' high notes and his ability to banish lameness from a soft-rock-style tune. After the piano thunder subsided, the crowd began screaming song titles, to the point that Folds couldn't make out any of their requests. After one particularly stoked fan screamed, "Ben, you're fuckin' awesome!" Folds launched into an impromptu ditty about crowd etiquette -- or lack thereof -- singing, "You can show your chest, and I appreciate that you like the shit I wrote 15 years ago. I was playing some other old shit then," adding some extra zing with a jazzy riff and a futuristic bit of synth that briefly transformed Overture Hall into a spaceship.
For "Cologne," a fan favorite from 2008's Way to Normal, Folds' percussionist sounded an acoustic guitar with what looked like a mallet -- or perhaps a chopstick -- while the ancillary synth man piped in orchestral sounds that transformed the tune into a symphonic rocker. Synthesizers rocked the house again two songs later for "Saskia Hamilton," another selection from Lonely, melting into a prog-like cloud of sound at the end. Folds' vocals were a bit hard to make out on this one, but he rebounded with "Still Fighting It," a song from 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs. Lilting the line "We're still fighting it one moment" and bursting with pluck and pathos for the punch line, "Everybody knows it sucks to grow up," the crowd became his choir, shouting along as the chorus crescendoed into an anthem.
Little did the crowd know, this was just a vocal exercise for the next song, an a cappella project Folds is attempting with eight different audiences. It was a fitting experiment, considering Folds' role as a judge on the NBC reality series The Sing Off, which pits teams of a cappella singers against one another for prize money and a recording contract. The show's latest winner, Streetcorner Symphony, even got to open the show. But for this exercise, the camera wasn't on Folds or Streetcorner; it was on the crowd. After giving some instructions on how to sing a few different lines, such as "Some dumb, dumb things I saw," the audience morphed into a massive glee club, with Folds as their fervent conductor.
Folds also explained how the Madison crowd's voices will be used in the final product: "The people below you will be from Tulsa, Oklahoma," he said.
As the band went backstage for a breather, the lights went down and Folds rolled out one of his personal favorites from Lonely: "Picture Window," composed over a New Year's holiday. This tune featured what may have been one of the best choruses of the night: "Hope is a bastard / Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease / Hope comes near you, kick its backside / Got no place in days like these." Meanwhile, "Video," a tune requested by a local teen who befriended Folds on Twitter and got to interview him before the show, gave fans a glimpse into the awkward soul of the teenage Ben Folds. After explaining how he struggled for years to transform melodies into complete songs, Folds admitted that releasing a bit of zaniness was the antidote to his troubles.
"There was one song where I was very excited about using the word 'stupid' and the word 'money,'" he explained. "Putting those in the song got me away from the 'Roses are red, violets are blue' thing I was doing before. It's what really made me a songwriter."
Once he'd demonstrated his funk prowess with a quick, jokey line reminiscent of the "Seinfeld" theme song, he savagely attacked the piano on "Jackson Cannery," the tune that landed him his first songwriting contract and won the affection of numerous record producers. After about two hours and two dozen songs, he and the band left the stage, while the crowd jumped to its feet for a standing ovation. Folds rewarded it with a warp-speed encore of "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" from 1997's Whatever and Ever Amen. If there were any doubts about Folds growing old and square, they were obliterated as the crowd stood and clapped, shouting "Yes you will, yes you will" along with their fearless choir leader.