On Tuesday night in Tempe, the “Bitch Went Nutz,” but at least she managed to give Ben Folds back that black t-shirt he’s been pining for since “Song for the Dumped.”
When word leaked that Folds would be hitting the stage at 7:45 — seventy-five minutes after the show began with an ASU Homecoming announcement and brief set by local Phoenix band, Reuben’s Accomplice — the low-key atmosphere of ASU’s beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gammage Auditorium turned to fidgeting excitement as anticipation began to seep through the crowd.
Teasing us with contradictory audible foreplay, the first sign that the mood was about to change was with the eerily recorded sound of a strange, near yogi-like chant of a low-pitched guttural “om.”
Rather than calming us down into meditative submission, though, Folds rushed out with his band and launched into “Way to Normal,” eliciting screams so loud it was evident that he (and not the audience) would set the tone — and define what "normal" would mean — for roughly the next two hours. Lucky for us as well as Folds, who seemed genuinely thrilled to have the continual “gig playing for smart-ass college kids," "normal" has always meant something very, very different than the Webster's definition.
Despite opening with “Way to Normal,” he remarked that the song, which shares the name of his latest and most successful solo album (his third since the demise of the Ben Folds Five), actually doesn't appear on the album. Further explaining that he’s created fake songs for all of the tracks on the album — which he leaked online — Folds ended up playing both fake and real versions of many of Normal's cuts, introducing or distinguishing between the two along the way.
In one of the more memorable “fakes” performed in his first set of “new shit,” he led into the alternate version of “Bitch Went Nuts.” A quintessential Ben Folds story-song with evocative imagery and odd analogies seasoned with topical references, the fake “Bitch Went Nutz” tells the sad tale of a young Republican lawyer whose upstanding, fellow church-going Republican colleagues give his date cocaine at a Christmas party, only for her to show her true colors as a “leftist liberal,” spouting off enough Democratic rhetoric to cost him his career. Taking on the character of the song, Folds acted out the part of the lawyer, delving into an hysterical burst of humor (that’s been cropping up repeatedly on YouTube and in bootleg concert footage).
Self-deprecating as always, his style and amusing production is at its most charming, however, when he sticks with the humor of his words and explanations rather than improvising jokes, such as when an audience member shouts out to him. After one joke, in particular, crashed and burned, he quipped, “Damn, I’m not funny. I’m not quitting my day job. Try the veal." At another point, he got so animated while speaking, he tripped up and laughingly said that he's “lost the use of the English language.”
However, similar to comedians like Johnny Carson or even Jon Stewart, Folds is far more irresistible when you realize how in sync he and his band mates are. Often smiling and nodding at each other like excitable high school boys playing their first gig (despite being in their 30s and 40s), it was easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm, especially as they played songs they obviously love performing, like the fake “Dr. Yang,” a.k.a. “Love Sick Diagnostician,” and both the fake and real versions of “Free Coffee,” which were augmented by his unique musical improvisation.
Whether he was conducting the audience in three-part harmony or arguing about the importance of mastering scales and modes — since, as he explained, in Hollywood, all composers need are scales, which he demonstrated with improvised ditties he created with the National Geographic channel and a melodrama in mind — Folds proved a showman of the highest order. Beating the keys of an equally beat-up, black Baldwin piano and adding Altoids boxes to create a tinny gunfire-like sound for “Free Coffee,” he only sat on his stool for seconds at a time. Physically leaning into the keys, he put his entire body into the songs to such an effect that, in a blink-and-you-missed-it gesture, we were able to catch him applying a band-aid during conversational riffs between songs.
Agreeably putting up with endless picture-taking by cell-phone and digital camera holders (including yours truly) and sometimes managing to stay still long enough for us to garner enough decent photos to put together a Picasa collage, Folds found nourishment in the enthusiasm of the crowd, getting more and more energized with each engrossing number.
The technical design of the show seemed rooted in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In -styled psychedelics and bright colors, swirly designs and effects, vividly employed by an artistic, mixed media display on the back curtain as images, videos, words and other stimuli were thrust at us directly in rhythm with each pound of the key or beat of the drum.
Since the tour is supporting his new album, the bulk of the performance consisted of what Folds described his “new shit,” including the gorgeous composition, “Cologne,” on which he showed his sensitive, romantic side, as in the chorus when he counts down until he's "letting you go."
Yet, he and the band returned (as promised) for their announced “surprise encore” of “old shit.” However, he never managed to fully lose sight of his Beck or Weezer -like persona — capably shoving aside his inner Rufus Wainwright and Damien Rice at a moment’s notice — to “get the party started” in the enormous three-tiered theatre.
Implementing classical piano technique and that great Pulp Fiction homage in “Philosophy,” Folds gleefully launched into some of his most famous works, like the big audience participation number, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” which could’ve earned a well-deserved standing ovation had he not moved directly into “Kate,” which was nearly upstaged by two of the worst dancers in the orchestra pit (who felt the need to shake it like Seinfeld’s Elaine).
Thankfully, Folds worked in the moving epic (and one of my favorites), “Still Fighting It,” which also seemed to play directly into the demographic of the crowd: a mix of “Suburbs” -like people, "male, middle class and white” and "Fighting" -styled others who know "it sucks to grow up.”
And, while part of me still misses Ben's Five, especially their performance that first hooked me — “Missing the War” on Sessions at West 54th — there is no substitute when it comes to Ben Folds live.
Arguably my generation’s Jerry Lee Lewis — minus that whole creepy, marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin thing — Folds reminded me once again of not only my weakness for piano players, but also of men unafraid of embracing their inner-dork. And sure enough, I realized in looking around the theatre, there was indeed strength in numbers. Together, it seemed, enough like-minded people could sing (in harmony) and cherish a man who jokes that he forged his college advisor’s signature to get into advanced composition courses, for which he didn’t receive credit.
After huge production numbers and band members donning big, yellow smiley faces and frowning faces while Folds climbed atop the piano, many in the crowd stuck around chanting “We Want More,” and "Let's Go, Ben Folds" even after “The End” flashed on the screen and the “om” chant returned, underscoring that Ben Folds will most assuredly be able to rock both the cities and the suburbs for quite some time. Needless to say, next time the bitch goes nutz (or nuts, depending on the version), I’ll be there to relish in the musical aftermath.
"Way to Normal"
"You Don't Know Me"
"Lovesick Diagnostician" (fake version of "Dr. Yang")
"You to Thank"
"The Frown Song"
"Free Coffee Town" (fake song)
"Bitch Went Nutz" (fake version of "Bitch Went Nuts")
"Still Fighting It"
"Rockin' the Suburbs"
"Not the Same"
"Brown Anthem" (fake "Frown Song")