Ben Folds: Big and Important

I reviewed Ben Folds’ performance last week with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. While it threatened to be a snoozer early, it ended up being quite a memorable evening, even though the crowd’s rapturous request for a second encore was denied (probably because the BPO had gone through all the charts it had learned).

Nerd-do-Well
Ben Folds hits it off with the BPO.
October 9, 2009, edition of The Buffalo News

At its peak in the mid-’90s, the Ben Folds Five had all the makings of a great nerd-rock band — cathartic, catchy songs that rage about childhood bullies and mean girls one second, and express openhearted sensitivity the next. Oh yeah, and these guys had no use for that most popular, and intimidatingly phallic, of rock instruments — the guitar. The bandleader and namesake of the snarkily named trio wasn’t some beautiful, testosterone-soaked ax-slinger. He was a piano man.

But not in the Billy Joel sense, thank god. When Ben Folds shared his copious gifts with the ornate backing of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in Kleinhans Music Hall on Thursday night, the resulting sounds had more depth, personality and charming irreverence than your average ivory-tickling pop star.

Folds, now almost a decade into his solo career, has always been a two-trick pony. For the most part, he’ll give you key-punishing, supercharged rockers or big, dramatic ballads, with all of it dripping in irony, teen angst, or both. And while some of his more elegant compositions are knock-you-on-yourtuchis great, especially his early Ali ode “Boxing,” the North Carolina native is at his best when he’s beating his piano into oblivion, a Jerry Lee Lewis in cappuccino frames that’s none too afraid of pop hooks and huge blasts of harmony.

I bring up Folds’ occasional weakness for sappy balladry because it negatively affected this show, if only slightly. Naturally, when putting together a set list to perform with full orchestral arrangements, Folds leaned more toward his softer side. But as a result, he shared some of the most boring tunes of his career, like “Smoke,” an overlong snorer of a relationship eulogy on the otherwise incredible “Whatever and Ever Amen” album, and “Cologne,” another unremarkable ballad off his most recent solo effort “Way to Normal.”

This was still a very good concert, however. Some frolicking woodwinds and somber strings made “Smoke” more interesting, and Folds eventually injected some energy into the night with far more pleasing selections. “Lullabye” was the first win, a gentle, bluesy and ultimately explosive gem that showcases all of the artist’s talents — simple, ingratiating chords and lyrics, some dramatic flair as the tension builds, thrilling lower-octave key bashing and unforgettable jazz soloing.

“Not the Same” was another dizzying high point. The artist stepped away from the piano on this one, letting the BPO take center stage with a playful arrangement of the song, which Folds described as being “about a guy who climbed a tree on acid.” But most memorably, the artist turned the Kleinhans audience into an “instant choir,” teaching us the main refrain beforehand by stacking the harmonies on his piano. Every time the chorus came around, the entire building was singing in three-part harmony — it was as spine-tingling as audience participation gets.

Folds also shared a pair of songs from a new album in progress, which will feature lyrics by novelist and established music geek Nick Hornby. One of these, a tale about a fictional aging rock star who had a hit in the ’70s called “Belinda” and can’t stand singing it every night for the memories it dredges up, was fantastically clever.

From this point, it was all golden. The big-band groove of “Steven’s Last Night in Town” was ideal for the setting; “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” combined the punch of the recording with some frantic string section bowing. For the encore, Folds saved the best.

“Narcolepsy” was the opening track on Ben Folds Five’s last, most ambitious album, 1999’s “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.” It’s a huge, bombastic, Queen-like production with stunning dynamic shifts, and to hear it performed by a live orchestra was a treat indeed.

As Folds walked toward the wings to a standing ovation, there was no doubt about it. The guy can still nerd-rock our socks off.

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