Ben Folds performs with 1,200-member choir

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

April 21, 2010

BY MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

The night was billed “Ben Folds and a Piano” but beware of truth in advertising. Monday’s sold-out show at the Vic Theatre might well have been billed “Ben Folds and a Piano and 1,200 Friends.”

Together, this collective grouping performed the 100-minute show, a first of three consecutive nights. Folds piped in songs from a forthcoming album before and after his set, but in-between he had nothing to promote nor had any practical reason to arrive in town with just a stool and a grand Steinway.

No matter. Ever since his days with a trio he aptly named the Ben Folds Five, Folds

struck an immediate connection with people that demands their participation, possibly because they know what it’s like to be inside songs written from the underdog’s perspective — and not the whimpering kind, either. On this solo tour, the crowd knew their cues — vocalizing drum sections, horn parts, song refrains, and on and on. While a presentation featuring just a singer and a keyboard is one ensured to elicit some yawns along the way, this one was kept alive kicking and screaming through therapeutic fits of hilarity and sincerity.

First the hilarity: Like any two-fisted keyboard pounder, Folds knows how to deconstruct a piano recital into physical theater — standing, sitting, leaning and at one point, hitting single notes with one finger while the other hand holds a shaker that keeps the beat by striking the microphone stand. All this for a song about a girl gone wild on a cocaine binge. If it sounds complicated, it was.

The stripped-down setting provided opportunities for inventive embellishment. Opener Kate Miller-Heidke and her guitarist appeared to play “You Don’t Know Me,” which became a mini-operetta with all three players adopting parts, the audience, of course playing a fourth.

All of it might have come across as a collection of comic bits but his natural dexterity of musical styles kept the show from flatlining into a single beat. At one point, he poked fun at Chicago blues but then played an instrumental of the traditional barrelhouse piano style that showed he was hardly a tourist. That bled into obtuse jazz chords that summoned a veteran Chicago art-rock band. “There’s a band called Tortoise that plays chords like these,” he sang. “I’ve always admired that.”

They showed he durability of his fingers; other moments showed the durability of his songs. You get this feeling you just walked into the middle of an intimate but very familiar conversation when you listen to songs like “Still Fighting It” and “Time,” which is probably why the audience felt compelled to answer their refrains. The lyrics double as dialogue and the natural sadness in Folds’ voice gave sincerity to their delivery.

Oh, he also bashed a drum kit. During “Steven’s Last Night In Town,” two roadies constructed the cymbal stands and various-sized drums while he played each component in real time — the result was incidental (yes there was a solo) because the process was the feat.

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