How do you tell a "real" Ben Folds song from a "fake" one? That question lingered around the snarky piano-man's music well before he punked fans and pirates alike last year by "leaking" sham tracks of 2008's Way To Normal. While on the lookout for bogus tracks in last night's set at the sold-out Pageant, I realized that part of Ben Folds' charm for me has always been his toeing the line of sincerity: Is he just running with self-referential irony, or dipping into his actual white male rage? Does he really see college a cappella groups as part of a viable "folk" movement, or is he embracing a timely Andy Bernard/Glee moment? At 43, will he have mellowed, soured or ripened?
A packed house greeted Aussie opener Kate Miller-Heidke, a punch of strawberry-blond in a red dress. A little bit Kate Nash, a little bit cabaret, the singer brought humor and operatic range to ditties with lyrics such as, "I'm a baby boomer's daughter/and I'm never gonna reach nirvana...The 60s were 50 years ago/Get over it!" Accompanied by amusingly baritone-voiced Keir Nuttal on acoustic, she covered Britney's "Toxic," referenced her "front-bottom," and has written the definitive kiss-off song for the social media era: "(You Wanna Be My Friend on Facebook) Are You F*cking Kidding Me?" Her formal skill, way with a melody (the pair won the 2008 International Songwriting Competition) and showman's approach made her an ideal complement to the main act.
Strolling onstage alone, Ben Folds remained so for (almost) the entire show. Without drummer or bassist, the heft of the show was entirely on Folds' solo shoulders -- although again, then the focus has always been the interplay of piano and lyrics. The crowd seemed excited by the absence of a backing band and the prospect of more intimacy. Kicking off with "Free Coffee" from his latest album of original material, Folds moved quickly backwards and touched on tracks from the last 12 years. He got all the way back to the Ben Folds Five b-side "Eddie Walker" by the fifth song, after ad-libbing about the Coat Check/Soft Drinks sign to a Chuck Berry-esque riff.
Folds went into what seemed to be a mid-America-themed three-song sequence with "Effington" (written about Effingham, Illinois, on his "way to Normal," Illinois), "Jesusland," and "All U Can Eat." The crowd remained still and attentive to the rolling piano, and the songs seemed more melancholy odes than skewers. Folds then previewed three collaborations with author-as-lyricist Nick Hornby, two of which seemed out of the Folds character sketchbook: "Belinda" and "Levi Johnston Blues." After bringing out Miller-Heidke to sing the Regina Spektor part of latest single "You Don't Know Me," the singalongs began in earnest, with a spared-down "Kate" and thirtysomething anthem "Still Fighting It."
Though two Wash U a cappella groups were featured on this year's Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella!, neither appeared onstage with Folds. (Show-goers who made guesses that the kid pulled up to sing a cover of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" was perhaps a member, were quickly dismissed.) Everybody got to be part of the choir, however, when Folds conducted the crowd in three-part harmony on "Not the Same" to close the regular set.
Folds played none of the fabled fake songs, at least not that I could tell. But after all, those tracks were released "for real" as part of Stems and Seeds, so track "authenticity" has been air-quoted out of the discussion. Besides, Folds has built a career on being both sarcastic and genuine, making melodic pop-rock that nails both the bite and the beauty.
The double-edge gleamed last night after thundering crowd favorite "Zak and Sara," as Folds introduced "Rockin' the Suburbs" as an effort to write "the faggiest song possible" in response to music in which "you can't tell when the rage is real and when it's manufactured." If blurring the line was the goal, then a crowd of "nice, middle-class white guys" giddily screaming "F*ck!" was mission accomplished.
Set List: 1. Free Coffee (Way To Normal) 2. Annie Waits (Rockin' the Suburbs) 3. Sentimental Guy (Songs for Silverman) 4. Adlib song re: Coat Check, Soft Drinks, and a tuna steak that smelled of burnt plastic 5. Eddie Walker (Naked Baby Photos) 6. Effington (Way To Normal) 7. Jesusland (Songs for Silverman) 8. All U Can Eat (Supersunnyspeedgraphic) 9. Picture Window (Nick Horny collaboration, feat. lyric "Hope is a bastard") 10. Belinda (NH collab) 11. Levi Johnston Blues (NH collab) 12. You Don't Know Me (Way To Normal) (feat. Kate Miller-Heidke) 13. Kate (Whatever and Ever Amen) 14. Still Fighting It (Rockin' the Suburbs) 15. Bastard (Songs for Silverman) 16. Landed (Songs for Silverman) 17. Dr. Yang (Way To Normal) (fake version?) (nope, not the fake version) 18. Zak and Sara (Rockin' the Suburbs) 19. Rockin' the Suburbs (Rockin' the Suburbs) 20. Such Great Heights (Postal Service cover, feat. audience member) 21. Army (The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner) 22. Not the Same (Rockin' the Suburbs) Encore: 23. Selfless, Cold and Composed (Whatever and Ever Amen) 24. Song for the Dumped (Whatever and Ever Amen) 25. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces (Whatever and Ever Amen)