During his sold out Pageant show on Thursday night, Ben Folds took time out between songs to give some background information about his latest solo disc, Way to Normal. See, while creating the album, the piano man wrote and recorded songs with the same titles as those on Normal -- and then leaked them on the Internet.
Whether this was an acknowledgment of the fact that every album leaks before their release date – or a way to circumvent said event, one thing is certain: Folds’ fake songs are often as good (if not better) than what eventually appeared on Normal. Their performances on Thursday night -- and Folds’ comment that some people were ticked to buy the album and find that the fake songs weren’t there – certainly proved that. Set opener “Way to Normal” began in a blur of Broadway-caliber interlocking harmonies before slowing down into a funky rock song, while the fake “Bitch Went Nuts” resembled Soul Coughing’s churning hip-hop. Only a fake version of “The Frown Song” – which closed the night on a low-energy, dragging note – felt like a throwaway.
Indeed, the nearly two hour show lagged when Folds slowed things down for Normal’s slower, ballad-like material (“Cologne,” “Kylie From Connecticut”). Otherwise, the 42-year-old and a stellar band – including a bassist, drummer, keyboardist and auxiliary percussionist – ensured that new pop gems like “Effington” and “Brainwascht” meshed well with Rockin’ the Suburbs’ jaunty bits of melancholy (“Annie Waits” and “Zak and Sara”) and Songs for Silverman’s soaring single, “Landed.”
Folds was in fine spirits, judging by how many times he sprang off his piano stool constantly and dug in his heels like a determined performer. He also demonstrated how he made some cool piano effects on “Free Coffee” (Altoids tins, a distortion pedal and a harp on the piano string equaled something pseudo-electro) and performed some charmingly dorky, self-deprecating dance moves. “Let’s get this proverbial party started!” he exclaimed before “The Frown Song.” To Folds, that meant quite a bit of clapping above the head and a bit of a kickline with two keytar-hauling musicians wearing gigantic yellow frowning heads.
His humor is usually more of a sly wink and a subtle nod than this. For instance, “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” stutters and stop-starts just like Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” in terms of piano chords and tempo – which isn’t a surprise, judging from that title. In, another instance, a Jimmy Carter face was superimposed on a hot woman during “Bitch Went Nuts,” drawing laughter from the crowd.
The way Folds mixes the funny and lighthearted with the serious is well-documented; what’s interesting after seeing the mix of fans – under 21s and people in their 30s and older seemed to be the two most common demographics – that his music works on two levels. The pop-song singalong level will always be there, because of the jaunty nature of his music (which has quite a youthful appeal) but the lyrical depth and topics addressed, even within the “funny” songs, can be quite devastating and emotionally raw. Folds hasn’t always gone through what he’s singing about – but his empathy is strong.
In fact, the way Folds inhabits his characters and makes them so believable – whether they’re lovelorn, melancholy, cruel, base, crazy or just plain pathetic – makes separating the fakes from the real songs next to impossible. The fake “Dr. Yang” involved a man asking his doctor to call his ex-girlfriend and tell her he wants her back; you see, she’s blocked her ex-beloved’s number. The fake “Bitch Went Nuts” details the woes of a Republican lawyer who doesn’t make partner because he brings a Democrat to his law firm’s Christmas party and she gets coked up and spews liberal rhetoric. While absurd, it’s hardly a huge stretch from many of Folds’ past character sketches.
As promised, Folds brought out “old shit” for the core: Ben Folds Five’s Steely Dan-like “Fair,” the bouncy “Kate” and “Army.” Funnier was an airing of the solo tune “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” A satirical poke at white-boy angst and the aggro-rock scene, Folds inserted some hip-hop verses (and sounded like a Beastie Boy in the process) and then let the crowd sing the song-climaxing spoken-word verses, “Y’all don’t know what it’s like, being male, middle class and white.” (The irony was not lost that most of the crowd screaming these lines appeared to be young, middle class and white.) Three is by far the fewest BFF songs I’ve ever seen Folds perform live; it’s a testament to the quality of his vast catalog that while I had a long list of tunes I wanted to hear, I left the show completely satisfied.
Setlist: “Way To Normal” “Brainwascht” “Effington” “You Don’t Know Me” “Landed” “Dr. Yang” (fake) “Dr. Yang” (real) “Cologne” “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” “The Frown Song” “Annie Waits” “Kylie From Connecticut” “Free Coffee” (real) “Free Coffee” (fake) “Zak and Sara” “Bitch Went Nuts” (real) “Bitch Went Nuts” (fake)
Encore: “Fair” (Ben Folds Five) “Still Fighting It” “You to Thank” “Kate” (Ben Folds Five) “Army” (Ben Folds Five) “Rockin’ the Suburbs” “The Frown Song” (fake)