Sometimes, you just need a safe bet.
Ben Folds, for example, is always a safe bet. He’s an established artist who can still pack a house thanks to the years and years of successful live shows he has amassed under his belt. More importantly, he hasn’t had a real “hit” in over a decade, which bodes well for anyone sick and tired of struggling to hear the music over the constant conversations of those only present for that one song. Instead, the audience at this and most of Folds’ shows consist largely of fans, casual and die-hard, simply there for a great performance—and, as usual, Folds definitely did not disappoint.
The tone was set with a surprise a cappella battle that would have been a lot funnier had the groups not been so genuinely good. True, all four were University outfits (two from USC, one from UCLA and another from Stanford), but the added charm of Folds’ well-crafted power pop tunes as interpreted sans piano was still surprisingly magical. USC’s Reverse Osmosis won the audience over in the end with their rousing rendition of “One Angry Dwarf”, although the general consensus seemed to be that no one was really keeping score.
Folds kicked things off on a high note, running through a stream of tunes off of 2008’s Way to Normal and its predecessor, Songs for Silverman (2005) with infectious energy and his signature boyish charm. Backed by two percussionists, a bass player, and a keyboardist doubling as a horn section, standouts “Sentimental Guy” and “Dr. Yang” played out like some long-lost Jerry Lee Lewis/Beatles collaborations that only a music nerd’s wildest dreams could produce, and each selection flowed seamlessly into the next. Crowd-favorite “Jesusland” in particular set the audience on fire. It was the usual mix of outstanding musicianship and good old-fashioned showmanship that he is famous for on display for the unusually receptive Los Angeles congregation.
There was a bit of a fumble with the Regina Spektor duet, “You Don’t Know Me”, this time featuring Santa Monica singer-songwriter (and fellow pianist) Sarah Bareilles. Her voice was lovely, but the rendition left something to be desired that was difficult to place and made for a less than successful execution. Still, things were picked right back up with some creative piano experimentation, in the form of Altoids tins that somehow magically transformed the ivories into a New Wave synth fantasy that really came in handy during the ensuing instrumental jam that left not a single mind un-blown.
The backing band’s exodus marked the transition to a much more intimate block of songs, all with wonderfully heartfelt intros told in a joking manner that made them all the more winning. From the story of a newspaper man (“Fred Jones Part II”), to a tune about his daughter (the endearing “Gracie”), to his initial departure from the music business (“The Secret Life of Morgan Davies”), all capped off with a hilarious jingle written for a Japanese radio station, Folds displayed an effortless aptitude for captivating an audience, big or small.
The band returned for the “hit,” 1997’s “Brick”, to a flurry of encouragement rarely offered to songs about abortion. It kicked off a string of older tunes that made the audience instinctively sing along, whether as a massive chorale with Folds playing conductor on “Landed”, added harmony on the still enchanting “Fair”, or as the entire two-part horn section on “Army” (a throwback to his cult hit 2002 live album). By the time he played “Rockin’ the Suburbs”, the crowd had reached a state of welcomed euphoria that left everyone begging for an encore.
Josh Groban accompanied the band back on stage for an awkward head-scratcher of a cover that was sweet even if it did fall a little flat. Ever the showman, Folds knew that the crowd deserved a pleaser and closed out the night with a little cover of his own, in the form of his now-infamous interpretation of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” that once again had everyone present singing along. It was the perfect note on which to end the night, reminding the Palladium why Folds is a bankable artist: Simply put, he knows how to work a crowd. If you want to see a genuinely good show, Ben Folds will probably always be a safe bet.