It was day two of Ben Folds’ three-day stint of concerts at Chicago’s antique Vic Theatre. The stage contained one simple element: a piano. No drums, no guitars, just Ben Folds and his piano. It’s amazing how when a musician really knows the ins and outs of his instrument, how full they can make it sound. Folds seemed to use every key of that piano; sometimes opting to use one hand to play so that the other would be free to conduct the audience or give a quick lesson on how the fans could add background vocals. When he really needed a little extra volume to his sound, he would stomp on one of his piano pedals to give the effect of percussion. Or in the instance of “There’s Always Someone Cooler than You”, one hand played the piano while the other kept beat with a maraca.
Ben Folds’ concerts are, to be obvious and succinct, fun. Much like his music, it isn’t too serious. Even though he does have songs about devastating and tragic topics (think of the 1998 hit “Brick”), he still manages to keep the melodies light and catchy. Folds’ shows come with witty banter, spontaneity and interaction. The crowd heard an impromptu cover of “Long, Tall Texan” just because he “Felt like he needed to get in touch with his Southern roots.” And while the crowd didn’t get their wish of participating in a Chatroullette session (if you have not seen this, YouTube it immediately), we did get to partake in singing “Happy Birthday” to Folds’ father-in-law, as well as to the other audience members that kept yelling out that it was their birthday.
The opener was bare bones as well. The blonde, Australian Kate Miller-Heidke took the stage with just one other musician playing acoustic guitar. The instruments were kept to a minimum. There was one song that used a keyboard, but with a voice like that, any other instruments would have been superfluous. The girl can sing; and it’s not a voice that you would hear at the local coffee shops, its one that emanates from opera halls. It would seem that Miller-Heidke would need a bigger body to carry around pipes that big. Her high-arcing octaves really gave a unique sound to one of Folds’ hits “You Don’t Know Me”, which on the album Way to Normal, features Regina Spektor. However, with Miller-Heidke taking over, the song’s oohs and ahhs at the coda suddenly went from being catchy to awe-inspiring. She brought the background vocals to a completely different level, actually outshining Folds in the song’s forefront.
Folds took the stage alone, with a solo cup in hand. Song choices spanned his entire catalogue, from Rockin’ the Suburbs, Songs for Silverman, to supersunnyspeedgraphic, with two of his encores from the then Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen circa 1997. With many of his songs requiring background harmonies, Folds’ audience was more than willing to fill the void. His fans are extremely dedicated, knowing the harmonies by heart and, in turn, Folds is extremely trusting. He allows his fans to participate, never knowing just how vocally talented they’ll be, but on this night he was always rewarded. The opportunity to be interactive was never unnoticed or unwelcomed by the 1,300 fans. At one point, during “Gone”, Folds actually stopped singing altogether, allowing the crowd to take the lead. To which he responded, “That was beautiful.”
A great slow number was “Practical Amanda”, a song off the upcoming album that he co-wrote with author Nick Hornby. It was explained that Hornby, an Englishman, has an affinity for American politics, writing a song simply titled “Levi Johnston’s Blues”. The song is an imagining of the moment that Levi first realized that he had knocked up his girlfriend, Bristol Palin, the daughter of ex-Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. Folds said the chorus was taken from Johnston’s MySpace page:
“I’m a fuckin’ redneck, I like to hang out with the boys / Play some hockey, do some fishing, kill some moose / I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin’ I guess / Ya fuck with me and I’ll kick your ass.”
While the crowd favorites “Kate”, “Battle of Who Can Care Less”, “Landed” and “Zak and Sara” were played and appreciated, the crowd went absolutely bananas for Folds’ rendition of Postal Service’s tune “Such Great Heights”. He managed to bring out the soulfulness of Iron and Wine’s cover of this song, but kept the tempo like the original. Ben Folds manages to keep it fresh; his songs are heavy, yet lighthearted. You dance or you sway, but you don’t ever really just bob. And while he may not have the best voice in the world, it’s melodic and genuine, his words honest and not self-conscious. It’s evident how much he loves being a musician when he can take the stage, just Ben Folds and His Piano, and literally become a one man band.