Ben Folds – Assembly Hall – Champaign, IL 1/25/2011
Ben Folds’ first solo record Rockin’ the Suburbs came out on September 11th, 2001 – not an easy release day to forget. I remember walking into the empty record store that day to get what solace I could from twelve new songs from a favorite artist. In the ten years since, Ben Folds has released nearly ten LPs and EPs, performed all over the world with symphony orchestras, and with his new gig as a judge on NBC’s a capella show “Sing Off,” he has all but become a household name.
His trademark down-to-earth approach to songwriting continues to serve him as his solo work represents a balanced mix of heart-felt sincerity and humorously snarky cultural critique – a legacy not easily won from fans of the original Ben Folds Five. Over the last few years and releases, however, I wonder if he hasn’t leaned a bit heavy on the humor which in some cases seems more like kitsch (“Bitch Went Nuts” on Way to Normal) than critique (“All U Can Eat” on Sunny 16). His most recent release, Lonely Avenue, is a collaboration with author Nick Hornby who wrote the lyrics on the record. It follows in the sincere/snark tradition, only veering into that heavy-handed territory once or twice.
Despite these misgivings, Ben Folds rarely disappoints live.
His show last night at the Assembly Hall was no exception. The two-hour, twenty-four song set more than met expectations and Ben’s current band is perfectly suited to take on his catalog. They do so with a mix of spot-on three-part harmonies, synths, acoustic guitar, and (for the first time in memory) a bit of brass. Through it all, Folds’ Baldwin booms, and while Assembly Hall isn’t the best space acoustically for this setup, by the third or fourth song, I stopped paying attention to the mix and started singing along.
The evening offered up a wide-ranging set that drew heavily on Lonely Avenue, but gradually offered at least one song from every Folds release all the way back to the first Ben Folds Five record. Highlights included Suburb’s “Still Fighting It” (Folds’ song to his then-newborn son Louie), “Bastard,” the opener of his second record Songs for Silverman, and a lovely rendition of one of the only stand-outs on 2008’s Way to Normal, “Cologne” which is, in part, about astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak’s bizarre attempted murder charges. Each showcased that what Folds does best on his records: tight vocal harmonies over impeccable, but constantly shifting instrumentation.
There was also the typical Folds mayhem. Ben pleased the crowd with a cover of Ke$ha’s “Sleazy” – which was decided upon after checking the #1 song on iTunes a few weeks ago. Somewhere along the way, Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” came out again (much to my dismay – aren’t we done with ironic covers of gansta rap songs?). And then the show shut down for 15 minutes halfway though so that Folds and crew could gather some footage from carefully choreographed and directed audience participation for a forthcoming video. That should be interesting.
After the crowd sourcing, the final third of the show gave me reason, once again, to continue seeing Folds as often as I can. He played a short solo set, starting with one of Lonely Avenue‘s best songs,“Picture Window” and then into a three-song Ben Folds Five treat: “Lullaby,” “Emaline,” and “Last Polka.” The band came out again, and finished the evening out with Normal’s “You Don’t Know Me” and three more classics: “Kate,” “Army” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.”
By now, I’ve given up the hope that the Five will reunite, but I’m glad to say that Ben Folds continues to write and perform songs that offer that same respite I sought back when Suburbs was released, even if I can’t stand the a cappella show.