Review: Ben Folds

(Above: Ben Folds and Regina Spektor drop by Conan to perform “You Don’t Know Me.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Ben Folds is so melodic that even when he writes bad tunes on purpose he ends up with something you can whistle and enjoy.

Case in point: Folds’ two-hour-plus, sold-out concert at the Uptown Wednesday night. Nearly half a dozen of the evening’s songs were spoofs that Folds and his band leaked to the internet before the release of his latest album, “Way To Normal.”

“We decided even though these songs were written to suck, we liked them anyway,” Folds told the crowd.

So while the album version of “Bitch Went Nuts” is about a man justifying a break-up by blaming the woman, the “fake” version is about a liberal woman who takes cocaine and goes Ralph Nader at her conservative date’s law-firm party. Folds was so enamored with his fakes that he A-side/B-sided them against the album versions two times during the night. Both times each version held its own.

As such, the night was heavy on “Normal” material. Opening act Missy Higgins joined Folds for the bouncy, synth-heavy “You Don’t Know Me”; “Frown Song” was propelled by not one, but two keytars. “Cologne” is a beautiful ballad about a deteriorating relationship that stands proudly among Folds best compositions.

“Brainwashed” recalled the best moments of the Ben Folds Five, and while his band jammed on the outro, Folds stood to the side of the stage with his hands together, beaming like a child at a talent show.

Folds peppered the setlist with fan favorites like “Landed,” “Zak and Sara” and a partial cover of Elton John’s “This Song Has No Title” (which he’d performed at a New York City benefit concert earlier this week).

The encore was essentially a half-hour second set for the faithful. “Still Fighting It,” “Kate,” “Philosophy” and “Fair” were pure Folds gold that the crowd devoured. He’s not afraid to flip on the house lights to get the audience involved, and they were not shy about taking the cue. The crowd jumped on “Army” with a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” level of interaction, taking over the three-part-harmony bridge with no instruction.

The five-piece band included drummer Sam Smith, who played so hard the “V-O-T-E” letters fixed to his shirt gradually fell off. Folds frequently dismissed the extra keyboard player and percussionist for a pared down bass-drums-piano trio on the harder hitting numbers.

Higgins warmed the crowd up with a 45-minute set of radio-ready acoustic pop, playing in socks because, she said, her shoes got soaked on an afternoon expedition to Broadway Café. The highlight of her set was “Going North,” which featured a great acoustic guitar solo by Ben Edgar.

The concert was Folds third local performance of the  year, following a late-winter, students-only show at UMKC and a 70-minute set at Wakarusa in June. If that set was slightly truncated, Folds made amends by playing for more than two hours and returning for two encores Wednesday night. The first encore set ended with the fake version of “Frown Song.” It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving with anything but a smile.

Setlist: Way to Normal/Effington/This Song Has Not Title/You Don’t Know Me (with Missy Higgins)/Gone/Brainwashed/Dr. Yang (fake)/Dr. Yang/Anne Waits/Cologne/Frown Song/The Bitch Went Nuts/Landed/Kylie from Connecticut/Free Coffee/Free Coffee Town/Hiroshima/Zak and Sara/The Bitch Went Nuts (fake) Encore: Fair/Still Fighting It/Philosophy/Kate/Rocking the Suburbs/Underground/Army/Frown Song (fake)/Not the Same


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