Ben Folds and Eef Barzelay concert review

Ben Folds & Eef Barzelay

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Years ago my wife and I drove down to a Southern Culture on the Skids show at the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, N.C. Before the music started, I noticed a short guy with glasses leaning against a railing by himself and sipping a beer. It was Ben Folds. Because he didn’t seem to be doing anything, I went up and spoke to him. He was gracious, engaging and funny, talking music and telling tour stories. That conversation was a short version of a Ben Folds concert, minus the music, audience conducting or stool-throwing. Folds is a showman, plain and simple. And if some of his tricks are familiar from previous tours or a live album, you’re still going to be won over by his charm and his songs.

Folds’ current tour finds him back in the classic Ben Folds Five setup -- piano, drummer and bass player. He seems as comfortable there as he is standing behind his Baldwin, flanked by a pair of keyboards. Near the start of the show, Folds described the perfect concert as learned in “Rock Star 101” -- start with a bang, play some mid-tempo stuff, build the crowd into a frenzy, play an encore.

Which is, as it turns out, exactly what he did.

After a strong start featuring an unnamed new song and “Gone,” Folds went into storytelling mode, to the crowd’s delight. He talked about his early days playing in the Hampton Roads area, when he would always put Bruce Hornsby (a Williamsburg native) on the guest list, only to be blown away one night when Hornsby actually showed up. Introducing another appealing new song called “Hiroshima,” Folds told a story about giving himself a concussion by tumbling off a stage in Japan, then getting up and finishing the show. “This is a true story,” he said. “It’s not necessarily interesting, but it is true.” During the song, he showed off perhaps a brand-new piano technique by sticking a tin of Altoids on the strings to produce a metallic percussion effect. 

The set leaned heavily on the Rockin’ the Suburbs album (he played the title track, “Annie Waits,” “Zak and Sara,” “Still Fightin’ It,” “Gone,” “Fred Jones Pt. 2,” “Losing Lisa” and “Not the Same”) while dipping sparingly into BFF territory for “My Philosopy,” “The Last Polka,” “Underground,” “Kate” and “Brick,” and only one song, “Landed,” from Songs for Silverman. As for those live tricks, they still have some power to move and amuse. He pulled out “the brown note” shtick (a fabled pitch designed to make people lose control of their bowels) before “Narcolepsy,” then altered the lyrics to “I must warn you / You’ll shit your pants.” It must be said, he turned the song into a show-stopper by dropping in a dizzying array of piano-playing styles, from jazz to boogie-woogie to prog rock to synth.

During “Army,” the crowd knew to continue the “bababa” chorus well past the end of the song, and after the show-ending “Not the Same,” Folds conducted the crowd in ascending “ahhhs.” Then, he threw his stool at the keys.
One trick that actually gains some power in concert is Folds’ cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” I had gone from loving this song to being totally tired of it, but anyone who can listen without laughing to his super-serious white-boy take on lyrics like “Tighter than a motherfucker with the gangsta beats / We was ballin’ on the motherfucking Compton streets” is a stronger man than I. With the uniformly excellent new songs (he promised an album soon), Folds proved that he’s got plenty of new tricks.

Opening the show was Clem Snide front man Eef Barzelay. I like the band and I like his solo stuff, but by himself, I must say I found him pretty annoying. Maybe the stage is only big enough for one geeky white guy at a time.

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