7:30 p.m. Tonight
At the Michigan Theater
Some people were born to be firefighters, doctors or lawyers. Ben Folds was born to be an entertainer. To call Folds a piano-playing singer-songwriter would be an unjust assessment of the range of his talents. Storyteller, comedian, balladeer, rock star, multi-instrumentalist, conductor, composer, choral director and free-styling gangster rapper would be a more comprehensive listing of Folds’ multiple personas during any given two-hour live set.
Keep in mind, though, that all of this comes from a bespectacled, giraffe-necked man who would easily be a finalist for the goofiest man alive contest. Although Folds’s awkward demeanor, piano prowess and unmatched ability to connect with a crowd seem like they would contradict each other, they seamlessly blend to make a Ben Folds show the experience that it is.
On his latest effort, 2008’s Way to Normal, Folds flashes his desire to make music with a more experimental edge. He employs a variety of synthesizer and keyboard effects to create a sound that is fresh at points, but more regularly raucous and confusing. It was critically regarded as a complete failure and is widely considered Folds’s least satisfying collection of songs to date. This isn’t to say there aren’t bright spots on Normal. “You Don’t Know Me,” a duet with Regina Spektor is a danceable pop gem and “Cologne,” the latest installment in his trademark cache of ballads, comes close to perfection. Both tracks should be nice additions to an already stacked set list.
Folds will play at the Michigan Theater tonight to a sold-out crowd. For those attending a Folds show for the first time, the following items are essential to know before attending a Ben Folds concert. For the veterans, consider this your refresher course:
The first song will be terribly underwhelming.
For some reason, a middle-aged white guy pounding away at a Steinway does not deliver as much immediate sonic energy as the opening guitar chords of a Radiohead or White Stripes show. Hang in there, though, it only gets better from here.
Don’t be surprised if your favorite song isn’t played.
Make a bet with the person sitting next to you that “The Luckiest” and “Brick,” Folds’s two most popular songs, will be absent from the set list. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because Folds fills the gaps with brilliant covers, unforgettable stories and outlandish antics.
Audience participation is mandatory.
Warm up those vocal chords because your pipes will be put to the test. Folds will not only be leading singalongs, but he will be conducting the audience as if they were an orchestra. Your role is not to sing words but rather a range of tones that culminate to make a sound that will send chills up your spine.
Folds is not afraid to “cuss on the mic.”
As he so eloquently stated on “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” vulgarity is an essential part of the performance. Fan-favorite “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” a Dr. Dre cover, is especially uncomfortable due to its profane subject matter. Get your earmuffs ready.
Expect the unexpected.
At a show in East Lansing in 2006, Folds was sporting a brand new baby grand piano. It took him a mere five songs before he severed the pedal from the rest of the instrument (Folds:1 Steinway: 0). To pass the time during its repair, Folds brought his cab driver from earlier in the day on stage to play a mean harmonica, which Ben couldn’t help but freestyle to.
Your very own Ben Folds memories might be made on Wednesday night. They’ll be the kind of memories that you’ll be able to reminisce about with friends years after you graduate from the University: “Remember that one time when Ben Folds came to Ann Arbor and crowd-surfed while playing the piano?”