It’s been almost two decades since Ben Folds was living in Montclair, New Jersey – a mid-size town located 12 miles outside of New York City. Last night he returned to rock the suburbs (couldn’t resist) in support of his latest release “Lonely Avenue” – a brilliant collaboration between Folds and English author Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”, “About A Boy”). This alliance seems like a natural fit. Both approach their art forms in a similar way; using sarcasm and dry humor as a means to soften their often emotionally charged themes.
“Lonely Avenue” is a CD that demands your attention (as well as multiple listens); a bold request of the modern audience, but the payoff is rewarding. The album plays like 11 short stories; each sung and scored by Ben Folds, and layered with string arrangements from Paul Buckmaster. Both Folds and Hornby sit at the core of music geekdom; what’s impressive is how many people respond to their work. Their subjects are usually flawed; but always relatable.
While Nick Hornby was not present at the Wellmont Theatre for this particular show; Ben Folds did a good job of providing the liner notes and additional background to the new tracks that were played live. His set opened with “A Working Day”; a song that chronicalizes the day of a creative-type. The punchy rhythm and interlaced synthesizers make this a catchy tune, and this track is also used to open “Lonely Avenue.” This song hits close to home with the chorus complaining “some guy on the net thinks I suck, and he should know. He’s got his own blog.” This kind of song could have easily been written by Folds; both Hornby and him share a similar way of conveying angst and frustration and displaying it in a humorous manner; which is evident in the large catalogs of each.
The artistic process is a theme in a few of the new songs including the ballad-like “Belinda;” which follows a central character who’s one-hit was about a woman whom he can no longer be with; yet he’s doomed singing this song for the entire scope of his career; forced to constantly relive this botched relationship. The range of emotions that Folds is able to convey live is very impressive; and his ability to jump from sincerity to absurdity is also equally impressive. This track was quickly followed by a cover of Ke$ha’s “Sleazy,” a moment that many in attendance could have probably done without.
Even songs that may seem like that they exist solely for shock value are executed brilliantly by Folds. One track off of “Lonely Avenue” that seems destined to become a live staple would be “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” a song which finds the protagonist in a dilemma because he impregnated the potential Vice President’s daughter and is now in a situation where he is being pressured to conform to the right-wing demands (based on a true story). It is a rather impressive site to see close to 1,000 people singing in unison the chorus which goes “I’m a fucking redneck, I like to hang out with the boys, play some hockey, do some fishing and kill some moose.”
About mid-way through the set, there were some problems with the sustain pedals on the piano and Folds was forced from his seat until the problem was fixed. This did little to stop the momentum of the show as Folds took this opportunity to show off his prowess on the drums and bass, switching from instrument to instrument until the piano problems were resolved.
One interesting moment in the night came when a fan towards the front caught Folds’ eye with a sign requesting the Dr. Dre song “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which was covered by Folds on his 2006 album “Supersunnyspeedgraphic” and became one of Folds most popular tracks. While Folds stated how he usually avoids playing requests; he gave into the Ralph Macchio look-alike and even struck his best “Karate Kid” pose for the audience in response. Folds has a gift of chiming out catchy tunes and has done a great job of transforming this song into his own. He even extended the ending of this song with his own lyrics relating to his days on the mean streets of Montclair.
The concert ended with a slew of Ben Folds most popular songs from both his solo career and his days with Ben Folds Five including “Hiroshima”, “You Don’t Know Me,” “Army,” “Kate,” and fittingly the title track from his solo debut “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” Mission accomplished Ben. You will have a hard time differentiating the new material from his staples, but that makes no difference as almost all of these songs work live. Not many songwriters have the ability to convey such emotional range in their songs and relate with the audience as well as Ben Folds.
Words and Photos from Jesse Zryb