If piano men Elton John and Billy Joel got together to have a son, he might look and sound a lot like Ben Folds.
Wait. That’s talkin’ ’bout my generation. Still, 47-year-old singer-songwriter Folds bridges the generational and stylistic gap. He sits somewhere between dweeb and hipster, blue-collar and #firstworldproblem bluesman, mixing the rollicking, honky-tonk style of John with Joel’s working-class poetry.
Best known as frontman of the neo-emo band Ben Folds Five, he brought his effing unfettered “Solo” act to George Washington University’s campus on Monday night to prove, once again, he is the euphonious voice of the selfie/Google generation.
I say “Google” because his compositions are laced with so many proper names, both real and imagined, that you might need a powerful search engine to keep up. And “selfie” because, ultimately, his sneering, sarcastic lyrics are a shared exercise in soul-searching.
And he talked. A lot. Of the two hours he spent onstage, nearly 25 minutes of it were chatting and diverting from the planned set list. It was 10 minutes in, after opening with Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” in honor of the vengeful spring weather, before he tapped his own material.
He’s unpredictable like that, but it helped to reduce the newly renovated 1,490-seat Lisner Auditorium (upgraded seats, carpet and sound system) to an informal, intimate parlor setting. College crowds, after all, are intimately familiar with Folds’ music, as he provides the literature for many an a capella group while serving as a judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off competition show.
And this musical pioneer is currently straddling two tours, having spent a year composing a piano concerto that he’s taking on the road with resident orchestras in cities worldwide from Baltimore to Berlin. A project, he told Monday’s audience, that he “had to do … to do something that scared the hell out of me.”
But no way has he turned high-brow. He still can raise an eyebrow ripping into suburbia, religion, all-you-can-eat buffets and Walmart. Though he previewed several movements from his concerto (which he predicted will be “critically slammed”) and vamped while trying to remember some of his earliest, most facetious compositions (“The Secret Life of Morgan Davis” and “One Down,” which he wrote literally to fulfill his contractual obligation of 4.6 songs – “One down/And three-point-six tomorrow/And I’m out of here/People tell me /Ben, just make up junk /And turn it in”), he struck his deepest chords with a seamless five-hit sweep (“Brick,” “Landed,” “Zak and Sara,” “Kate” and “Rockin’ the Suburbs”); a protracted “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” in which the stage crew assembled a drum kit around him piece by piece as he transitioned from Steinway to killer drum solo; and the interactive encore “Not the Same,” in which he conducted the audience in three-part harmony like a shaggy-haired manic maestro.
Dressed in a smart twill suit, pale-pink loose-collar dress shirt and Keds-style sneaks, he ponied up to the piano on a low stool against a rippling, kaleidoscopic light show that matched his moods from indigo to autumn and often leaked into the audience’s physical and mental space. He hacked at that piano like a lumberjack, alternately caressing it harp-like as he dampened its internal wires with one hand and jazz-riffed with the other.
He lost himself in the reverie of tear-jerkers “Still Fighting It” (written for his son), “Brick” (about an ex-girlfriend’s abortion) and wedding-song staple “The Luckiest.” Most of the audience lost it, too, in schmaltzy indulgence. But in the next breath, this boyish genius would have us thinking hard and giggling/Googling again.The potential monotony of his compositions — many pulse like a percussive heartbeat as he shakes his left foot in double time, while others approach “jingly”- was averted with unexpected virtuoso flourishes and glissandos, a possible side effect of his foray into classical music.
His screw-ups were also refreshing. Whereas some rock-pop fans might come to a show expecting studio playbacks, Folds’ numerous mental lapses and false starts during this performance only added to the charm. At one point, he apologized: “You guys are so patient. I f***k up more than any performer I have ever seen. … I don’t know why that’s OK. Stupid, stupid, stupid (*pounds head with fist).” Then the kicker: “There’s a live record being done tonight, people.”
He cracked himself up on the obligatory “Improvised Piece (Rock This Bitch)” — composed on the spot, his dimples flashing and brain circuits firing, as he veered thematically from the Detroit tarmac to D.C. tourism to dinosaurs to time’s endless march toward death. It was funny, really, you had to be there. Humorous asides peppered the evening including wry changes to lyrics and even choices of intro/outro music: Three Dog Night’s One and Eric Carmen’s All By Myself. (Ben Folds Solo — get it?)
A North Carolina native, Folds dedicated “Best Imitation of Myself” to fellow Southern clown Stephen Colbert to congratulate him on his “Late Show” coup. Yet in an age when algorithms tell us what we’re searching for and Pandora informs us of what music we like, there’s no one who does a better imitation of ourselves or is more in tune with today’s Alien Nation than Ben Folds. And HARDLY anyone cooler.
Running time: Two hours, with no intermission.
Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head
All You Can Eat
Best Imitation of Myself
Still Fighting It
On Being Frank
The Secret Life of Morgan Davis
Steven’s Last Night in Town
Zak and Sara
Rockin’ the Suburbs
Improvised Piece (Rock This Bitch)
Not the Same
Ben Folds Solo appeared for one night only, April 28, 2014, at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium -730 21st Street NW, in Washington, DC. For information on Ben Folds The Orchestra Experience coming to the DC area, visit here. For upcoming events at Lisner Auditorium, visit their website.