What does Ben Folds have in common with you? Everything. Since his major label debut in 1995 with the Ben Folds Five, he's lived three lifetimes of cathartic, tragic and hilarious moments, and has worked with fervor to share them through song. Since the band's unexpected breakup in 2000, his solo career has proved fruitful in charging forth with his original formula: live life, don't take it seriously. In short, he's a normal dude. Well, a normal dude with an incredible aptitude for musical and lyrical composition. Oh yeah, and he's a total smartass.
Folds brought the noise with his Baldwin baby grand to the stage of The National Friday night to a near sell-out crowd. He was joined on stage by Jared Reynolds on bass, and Sam Smith on the kit (that's right, no guitar -- a lineup that's Folds has used since, well, the beginning). Although much of the stage light is shined upon Folds' charismatic prowess, Reynolds and Smith contribute equal parts to the harmony and theatrics.
The set consisted of a garden variety of selections from both Ben Folds Five and solo recordings, as well as a few new songs from an album to be released in September. The show's tone was set during the second song, when one of the band's crew members came out onstage, sat in a chair with his back to the audience and played a tambourine. Later, he began a dance routine that looked like it may have choreographed by Napoleon Dynamite. The newbies in the crowd knew they were in for a treat.
Another highlight included "Philosophy," from the first Ben Folds Five album, which moved into an extended "Miserlou" beating on the piano, much like his rendition on 2002's "Ben Folds Live" album. The refreshing thing about his jamming is that it does not come off as self-absorbed. All the while, it stays entertaining and throws in a hint of comedic gold.
During "Not the Same," a hilarious narrative about a friend who took LSD at a party and stayed in a tree all night, Folds cut the crowd into three harmonious octaves, conducting them like a high school mascot. This same crowd participation continued during "Army," when the crowd cut into two dueling horn sections without prior instruction.
Noticeably absent from the set was "Rock This Bitch," a song that Folds always inexplicably makes up on the spot after typical hounding from a handful of fans in the crowd. Although the song was requested on multiple occasions, he chose to move on with the set.
However, the true highlight of the night came with a loungey version of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit." This piece was a prime example of Folds' tongue-in-cheek perception of musical performance and a reflection of the fans' openness to a carefree blurring between talent and creative license.
Folds has a way of culling everyone into his mission for the evening: to simply love music. After a performance that concluded in just over two hours, the crowd was smiling ear to ear.
This was my maiden voyage to The National. Its aesthetics, sound, layout, and many bars, restrooms and optional seating make it a top-notch facility. The renovation efforts truly paid off and were worth the wait. My only suggestion is that the City of Richmond subsidize the cost of drinks with my recently paid personal property tax dollars. Five-dollar PBRs are only going to encourage an increase in drinking bottled water at the shows, and no one wants that.
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