RALEIGH – Ben Folds sat at his piano onstage at Meymandi Concert Hall Thursday night, gazed out at the crowd and got a glint in his eye. He was playing the first of a two-night run with the NC Symphony, and he’d just coached the crowd to sing along on the old Ben Folds Five standard “Not the Same.” Pretty much everyone in the room complied – including one guy who was a little too avid, singing out louder and sharper than everyone else.
So Folds had some fun with that, making up a song on the spot called “Lonely Douchebag.” Riffing away on piano, Folds improvised lyrics about a drunk with a desperate need for attention. Then he arranged the symphony’s different sections on the fly – “First violins, gimmie a G” – instructing the saxophonist to take a solo and counting it off the way Bruce Springsteen might have primed a Clarence Clemons blast. The crowning touch was the backup choir chiming in with a chorus of “Lonely douchebag,” in perfect harmony.
It was a wicked display of smart-aleck virtuosity, and there’s nobody better at that than Folds.
Arguably the most successful musical alumnus of Chapel Hill's 1990s-vintage alternative-rock wave, Folds is truly living the dream. Two decades into a career that seemed like a goofy piano-pop lark at first, he skips from one interestingly quirky project to the next. His regular collaborators include novelist Nick Hornby, professional hambone William Shatner, Elton John string arranger Paul Buckmaster, various collegiate a capella groups and the occasional orchestra.
The NC Symphony did the honors Thursday night in a 16-song program, ably conducted by Sarah Hicks – who strode onstage in spiked heels looking more like a rock star than the disheveled Folds. If Folds seemed a bit punchy, he had his reasons. He announced that he’s in the middle of recording a new Ben Folds Five album (which will be the trio’s first since 1999), to cheers from the crowd.
Funny backstories are a staple of Folds’ live shows, and he told some good anecdotes Thursday night. “Cologne” was a song Folds said he made up onstage in Germany while under the influence of prescription drugs. “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” was a song he woke up with in his head, leading to a rumination about Folds’ height and how he’s not as short as people think he is. There was also “Effington,” a remarkable piece of musical sophistication given its stated origins as the result of an off-color joke about the name of a town near Normal, Ill.
There were times when Folds’ piano didn’t seem loud enough to stand out from the orchestral backup. That aside, it still felt like a perfect match, pairing his songs with an orchestra. Folds’ theatrical style lends itself to this format, in part because of his flair for grand gestures. Tongue firmly in cheek, Folds spins tales of quiet desperation along the lines of John Updike, and he’s unafraid to make his first-person subjects look bad. Folds and Randy Newman are kindred spirits, and not just because they both play piano.
Thursday’s highlights included “Landed,” sporting a piano riff that is Folds at his most Elton John-influenced; the aforementioned “One Angry Dwarf,” with Folds at his snottiest; and a solo encore version of “Army” where Folds conducted the crowd to fill in for the horn section of the recorded original. To close out the evening, Folds did a “solo percussion piece” in which he wandered about the back of the stage banging away on various percussive devices.
It was hilarious and a little cheesy – and, despite the casual nature, perfectly in rhythm. The man’s a virtuoso, after all. And he’ll do it again Friday night. Just sayin’.
ADDENDUM (6/8/12): Postponement dustup in Atlanta.