Ben Folds, a classical composer in addition to a classic singer-songwriter, came to The Anthem with a few tricks up his sleeve.
The biggest arrived at the end of the night, as Ben’s admirers have come to anticipate. Ben scurried to the top of his piano, and explained that he would like the audience to sing in three-part harmony. He segmented the near-capacity crowd into three and assigned them each a part. Then he conducted them through chorus of “aaaaaahs” — on this occasion for “Army,” a song from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the 1999 album by his group Ben Folds Five.
While I don’t think this particular audience on July 30 would win any accolades, the result was still pure Ben Folds. Ben’s wiry frame swayed side to side as he conducted, and his face displayed a look of unchecked glee that sprung from the satisfaction that people were truly enjoying themselves.
For much of the show, Ben struck me as an amalgamation of beatnik poet meets Western cowboy. After striding onto stage, he opened solo with “Annie Waits,” a number from Rockin’ the Suburbs, his 2001 solo record. He drew six songs from the album for his 15-song set. As he wrapped the first song, Ben was joined by his four bandmates.
Stream Rockin’ the Suburbs by Ben Folds on Spotify:
Ben chatted with the audience, explaining that he usually does not celebrate birthdays, but that he was proudly celebrating one that day — for his book. Released on July 30, his first book is a memoir titled A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons. In a positive review by the Washington Post, Allison Stewart said Ben shares a timeless story about a star wrestling with fame. “According to Folds, the constant restless motion of music-making was a way to avoid deeper issues: He was good at music but bad at life. He worked himself into ill health to avoid facing his chaotic inner self and married repeatedly,” Allison wrote. For the curious, Ben gives a book talk at the Kennedy Center, where he is an artistic adviser to the National Symphony Orchestra, on Oct. 1.
Early in the show, Ben’s sense of humor was on full display. He noted that for a city of its stature, Washington, DC, doesn’t have many if any songs that invoke it. So he improvised one, stringing a melody together with an emphatic chorus of “Washington, DC!” We encourage Ben to develop that song a bit and deliver a fuller version in his next DC show.
In 2010, Ben collaborated with novelist Nick Hornby, best regarded by this blogger as author of High Fidelity, for an album, Lonely Avenue. The results also spoke to Ben’s specific wit as he took a MySpace bio from Levi Johnston, father to a grandchild of Sarah Palin. Ben performed the resulting song “Levi Johnston’s Blues” with an air of incredulity that even a young man like Levi would be so green as to associate with aspiring political stars and post MySpace messages quoted in the song: “I’m a fucking redneck/ I live to hang out with the boys, play some hockey, do some fishing/ And kill some moose/ I like to shoot the shit, do some chilling, I guess/ You fuck with me and I kick your ass.”
Toward the end of the show, Ben got the audience dancing to “Rockin’ the Suburbs” with a clever lyrical substitution: “Rockin’ the Suburbs, just like the Violent Femmes did” instead of “…just like Michael Jackson did” in a nod to his co-headliners, the Violent Femmes. Together, Ben and the Femmes proved a surprisingly effective mega double bill for a summer tour.
Ben Folds is on tour with the Violent Femmes through Aug. 16. See Ben’s full tour schedule on his website.
Here are some photos of Ben Folds performing at The Anthem on July 30, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Mickey McCarter.