Singer, songwriter and pianist Ben Folds played a wildly entertaining set at Express Live Thursday night, blending a boisterous musical performance of his highly melodic songs with his trademark brand of storytelling, improvisation and witty banter for more than two hours.
Folds’s brand of piano-based power-pop found commercial success in the late 90s via radio hits “Brick” and “Army” by namesake trio Ben Folds Five, which was named for alliterative, rather than numerically accurate, purposes. Since the band’s final tour in 2000 — except for a 2012-2013 reunion tour — Folds has maintained a fruitful solo career, releasing five full-length albums and touring almost constantly.
Prior to Folds taking the stage, Boston-based folk-pop trio Tall Heights performed a 35-minute set of acoustic-based music.
The band’s aesthetic — marked by the instrumentation of drums, acoustic guitar, cello, synthesizer and harmonized vocals — made for some extremely pretty music. Fans of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Sylvan Esso may enjoy their work, which — though performed well — was quite boring to this reviewer.
Featuring Folds performing solo with his Yamaha grand piano under house stage lighting, Thursday’s show drew pretty evenly from both his solo catalog and that of Ben Folds Five.
Highlights were plentiful, though standouts from my perspective — that of a Folds live show veteran — were “Still Fighting It,” given a gorgeous vocal harmony from opener Tall Heights’ two frontmen, and “Capable of Anything,” an elaborately-orchestrated studio track rendered piano barn-burner in the set.
Another new surprise in the show came at the end of the planned set, with Folds tacking on a several-minute drum solo onto 1997’s “Steven’s Last Night in Town.” At the song’s conclusion, a stagehand brought a single drum over to Folds’s piano. As he began pounding away at the drum, Folds chased the stagehand stage left then took a seat at a stool as his crew built a drum kit around him, enabling a fairly impressive drum solo.
The performance came a few months into Folds’s lengthy “Paper Airplane Request” tour, which operates exactly how it sounds: after a planned setlist of eleven songs mixing his staples with some cuts off 2015’s “So There” album, fans are encouraged to write down song titles, fold them into paper airplanes and then launch them toward the stage in the hopes that Folds will play the requested songs.
Thursday night’s request set saw performances of “Selfless, Cold, and Composed,” “Eddie Walker” and “Emaline” — rarely-played songs from the Ben Folds Five days — as well as “Jesusland” and “Send Judy my Notice,” songs from Folds’s second solo album that dropped out of of his setlist years ago.
Straddling his piano stool as often as sitting on it, Folds gave a strong physical performance, often leaning hard into his keys during fortissimo passages and occasionally tapping rhythmically on his microphone to create a drum effect.
Folds’s abilities as a pianist are considerable, routinely deploying complicated runs. The obvious nimbleness of his fingers made it all the more jarring when he pounded — hard — on the keys with both fists the way a small child might.
By contrast, the slower songs, such as “Brick” and “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” brought down the volume, but not the interest level. Slow piano-and-voice ballads could easily be drowned out by even moderate crowd noise, but Folds’s audience remained attentive, focused on every word sung.
The pounding-to-whispering contrast in performance style matched the versatility in Folds’s songwriting. While uptempo numbers offer up criticisms of musical taste (“Not a Fan,”) or depictions of socialites whose only claim to popularity is that they’ll leave town tomorrow (“Steven’s Last Night in Town,”) his slower songs offer deeper reflections on the more unpleasant aspects of the human experience.
Folds’s great gift as a lyricist has always been his ability to make highly specific stories feel relatable to his audience. One need not have experienced the sort of relationship dysfunction described in “Landed” or “You Don’t Know Me,” the distress of keeping a teenage abortion secret portrayed in “Brick” or the concern for aging depicted in “Still Fighting It” — an ode to Folds’s son — in order to feel the pathos and sentiments in those songs. Such captivating songwriting continues to reward Folds with highly attentive audiences into the third decade of his career.
Since launching his solo career in 2001, Folds has toured constantly, alternating between three formats: backed by a usually-two-piece rhythm section, backed by an orchestra — he has performed with Columbus Symphony Orchestra three times — and alone on the stage with a grand piano, as he performed Thursday night.
Having seen Folds multiple times in each of these configurations, I can say that each has its advantages and disadvantages, but that his solo shows cannot be beat for their crowd-interaction factor.
Stage banter — generally the most tedious part of any live musical performance — is actually something at which Folds excels. Witty, self-deprecating, and able to hold audience interest for minutes on end by sharing anecdotes or joking around, Folds is the rare artist I find myself hoping to catch in a chatty mood, and solo sets allow him the leeway to wander off onto musical or storytelling tangents at will.
Take, for example, Folds’s beaut of an introduction to 1995’s “Uncle Walter.” Folds spent a couple minutes describing his young life and the time he spent with a family member who worked in construction, got drunk at lunch and would rant at Folds about the changes the family member would make if he were president.
Musically, “Rock This Bitch” is Folds’s improvisational showcase night after night. Spurred more than 15 years ago by a phrase shouted by a fan, Folds has used the titular line as the centerpiece of hundreds of divergent made-up-on-the-spot songs. Thursday’s rendition focused on Columbus businesses he has frequented in his many trips here — Lemongrass Fusion Bistro and Magnolia Thunderpussy record store among them.
In addition to improvisation and banter, Folds’ control over his audience is so strong, he routinely pulls off great feats of crowd participation, coaching concert attendees through singing a four-part wordless harmony on 2005’s “Bastard,” as well as enjoying the singing of simultaneous horn parts on 1999’s “Army” without prompt.
I’ve seen Folds perform around two dozen times and have never seen the crowd backing vocals fall flat. Thursday was no exception. As usual, the crowd-sung parts were mostly on-key. As usual, it was exciting to see the look of giddy surprise on participants’ faces over how good it actually sounded.