Ben Folds

Braden Auditorium, Normal, April 2, 2007
with the guy from Clem Snide

review by William Gillespie

When listening to many live albums, I get a sense of the artist performing a sloppy, inept, incomplete rendition of what they are able to create in the studio. Possibly this has tainted for me the idea of attending concerts. But seeing Ben Folds in concert was almost the reverse: he was so witty, exuberant, and spontaneously musical, that my sense was that the studio can capture only a fragment of the man's inventive madness. Take, for example, the songs he made up on the spot. To get to Normal from the St. Louis airport, Ben Folds had to pass Effingham, Illinois. The exit for Effingham (think F-ingham) inspired him to perform an apparently unwritten song in which all the citizens of Effingham were busy F-ing. To add to the fun, beside his piano he had a monophonic analog synthesizer which could produce sleazy porn-soundtrack-ready flatulent bass runs. Other highlights included the embarrassing "Bitches Ain't Shit," conducting the audience to sing the ethereal backup in “Not the Same After That” (standing atop his grand piano), an unexpected cover of “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service (wish I could have recorded it!), a suprisingly competent simultaneous slap bass and drum solo (the other two members of the band left the stage to allow Folds to play with their instruments), and such Ben Folds traditions as throwing the piano stool at the piano keyboard—a ridiculous update of the Who's guitar-smashing antics. His songs capture a certain virtuosity free of pretention, and yield a poetry as American as that of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, but without the opaque stylization of Dylan or the forced grittiness of Waits. His language is more generation X than boomer, and his works creep beneath those giants with a confused honesty. Folds is more likely to explore contradictions of class, gender, and race without letting the political drown the personal. In that respect his work straddles nicely the demands of posterity and the present: timeless but timely. Even the subjects he seems to mock are treated sympathetically, give or take an ex-girlfirend or -wife or two.

It was a wonderful evening. Even the guy from Clem Snide was okay.

addendum october 2008

I was browsing at Luna records in Indianapolis and found Ben Fold's newest CD: Way to Normal, with a song called "Effington." Did we witness the genesis of that song and the inspiration for the album title, thereby sharing in a moment in rock history? Either way, I bought the CD.

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