Since his days fronting Ben Folds Five, the North Carolina-born
songwriter Ben Folds has built a live reputation for turn-on-a-dime
spontaneity, improvising arrangements, setlists and even new songs
to please a crowd. At their best, Folds’s recent string of
solo piano tours have been orchestrated sing-alongs, calibrated to
reward the militant sects of BFF loyalists who stuck by Folds as he
embarked on his solo career. Admitting to being booked at more
intimate venues “and gymnasiums,” Folds might have felt
slightly distant from the audience in the cavernous Hill Auditorium
on Saturday.

Music Reviews
Hey, nerd! Down in front. (SCOTT SERILLA/Daily)

Kicking off with “There’s Always Someone Cooler than
You” from the Sunny 16 EP, Folds leapt from one end of
his catalogue to another all night long, pulling out the pre-Five
classic “Silver Street” and debuting almost a
half-dozen new tracks. In his ongoing stage banter, Folds
acknowledged he’s unsure about exactly what shape his next
record will take until tunes like the Elliott Smith tribute
“Too Late” or the yet-unfinished “Breakup at the
Food Court” find their feet in concert.

Folds was slightly subdued because he was playing on an
unfamiliar piano as opposed to the touring piano he’s famous
for beating on and lobbing his stool at. With a nod to his
professed guitar envy, Folds walked out from his piano to strap on
a bass for the funky new track “Renegade Rent-a-Cop,”
which also found the artist enlisting the audience to stomp out the
song’s rhythm.

The crowd-participation segments of the show were endearing
highlights, bringing in fans to mimic the call-and-response horns
of “Army” and the hymnal swell of “Not the
Same.”

Regretably, the show closed with the back-to-back sentimental
ballad fest of “Brick” and “Luckiest.” The
collective tear hanging on everybody’s cheek seemed too
kitschy for the usually more perceptive Folds. The encore featured
the unrelenting “Song for the Dumped,” where Folds
seemed to remember what has always been at the core of his
appeal.

He was admittedly rusty yet still managed to delight a capacity
crowd. Sporting a trademark self-deprecating charm, the
singer/pianist rambled through a loose set of old and new material.
Dropping the occasional lyric here and there, largely to the
indifference of his forgiving fans, Folds unquestionably was still
warming up to performing again after “living in (his) own
world” on vacation in his wife’s native Australia.
Folds’s saving grace Saturday night was the sheer joy he
exhibited getting back in front of fans, an undeniably contagious
energy that couldn’t help but win over the hall.

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