By Mark Guarino
When Elton John and Billy Joel first hit the road together for their on-again, off-again arena tour, they went head-to-head with grand pianos, trading songs and sharing stories.
That wasn’t exactly the format of Friday’s solo piano show at Ravinia by Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright who played separate headlining sets. But the coup of pairing together the two new generation piano pop songwriters was ingenious. Ever since grunge reinforced the guitar as rock’s primary instrument, the piano was once again shuffled to the sidelines until the late ‘90s when Folds and later Wainwright, Coldplay and others started to once again put it front and center.
Folds played first. His hour-long set included new songs from a forthcoming album, songs from the earliest Ben Folds Five days (“Boxing,” “The Last Polka”) and a guilty pleasure cover of Wham!’s “Careless Whisper.” Like John before him, Folds was the most irreverent of the two, able to mimic the cheesiest pop balladry and, on “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” going after the nu metal trend while replicating an entire rock band through just his voice and playing.
He has a serious side too, but in the cavernous Ravinia setting, he connected more with the crowd by getting them involved. Credit goes for getting the horde to sing complex three-part harmonies (“Not the Same”) and duplicate a layered horn arrangement (“Your Redneck Past”). He ended his set, conducting the crowd atop his piano, something Ravinia subscribers probably won’t ever see attempted by Daniel Barenboim.
For an encore, Folds returned to paid tribute to Ray Charles who died last week. Credit is due for pulling out “Them That Got,” one of his lessor known songs, but one of his best.
The Ravinia show was the first night of their summer tour together although Wainwright has been on the road continuously since last year following the release of his celebrated third album “Want One” (Dreamworks).
His fatigue was obvious. Wainwright forgot lyrics, hit wrong notes and strained to sing in the upper registers. “You know you have to practice,” he said. “Thanks for letting me do that.”
He switched between guitar and piano but because his songs are so elaborately arranged on record and so heavily nuanced, his solo set suffered from the absence of a full band.
Wainwright’s voice is his richest asset and it was only late into his set that he sounded in full possession of his songs (“Poses,” “Dinner at Eight”), singing them as if entranced by them. The effect was mutual.