BOSTON – Ben Folds shocked die-hard fans Friday night when he opened his show with a disclaimer – “None of you have heard any of these songs before.”
The fans crowded into the Orpheum were confused. Arriving at the Boston, Mass., theatre that evening, we were all expecting to hear songs from Folds’ new album, Way to Normal, which had been leaked onto the Internet three months prior to the artist’s fall tour. Instead, we were informed by the cheeky pianist and songwriter that everything we had heard online from the previously unreleased album had been a joke – fake versions of real songs. The band had recorded the fake album while bored one night in Dublin, and then ‘anonymously’ leaked it onto the Internet as a joke to fans.
The show consisted of one hour of new material off Way to Normal, followed by a brief, five-song encore. The artist began the show with a fake version of a new song, then immediately followed it with the real version of the song. He then spent close to 15 minutes explaining to his audience the difference between real and fake versions of various songs, and the meaning behind each. He referred to the fake versions of the songs as “boneheaded,” although given the songwriter’s affinity for unusual lyrics, the songs didn’t sound out of place.
Thus, so began Ben Folds’ extensive commentary, which continued throughout the show. Every two or three songs, Folds stopped the music, stood up, and spent some time explaining the remaining set list to his audience. He explained the ‘reality’ of each song, the meaning behind each version, and made jokes about the references within his lyrics. While it was a refreshing change to a typical concert, we rarely found ourselves out of our seats due to the frequent breaks. The commentary became extensive midway through the set, and fans became anxious to hear the music, finding the narratives tedious.
“I’ve seen Ben Folds three times, this is my fourth. It’s different, but I like it,” said Tim, a 20-year-old junior at Berklee College of Music. “He’s the man, and puts on some of the best live shows ever.”
Tim’s date, Zach, a 21-year-old senior at Berklee, disagreed with his friend. “I’ve never seen Ben Fold’s live, but this seems odd. He’s talking way too much!,” Zach said in a hushed whisper during intermission, hesitant to criticize Tim’s musical idol on the couple’s first official date.
While fans had mixed feelings about the commentary in between songs, it offered insight into the artist’s personal life and inspiration behind his lyrics. Ben Folds was originally the front man for late ‘90s chart toppers Ben Folds Five. When the band broke up in 2005, Folds went on a previously planned tour alone, thus launching his solo carrier. He plays a number of instruments, among them piano, guitar, and accordion. Folds writes, sings lead vocals, and plays the majority of the instrumentals for all of his songs. While touring, he hires a band to fill in for his multiple roles. The commentary offered insights into Folds’ inspiration behind his lyrics. When crafting the ‘real’ songs on Way to Normal, Folds drew inspiration from his childhood, various band experiences, past relationships, and experiences in corporate America. Each song had a story, and knowing that story before hearing the song for the first time added to the lyrical value of the music.
Other creative and quirky details made the show memorable. Midway through a song, Folds stopped the music to change the sound of his piano by wedging an Altoids canister in between the strings. Each song had a film playing on the large projector screen behind the band, with images ranging from Ben Folds in a drag costume to dancing turtles to trippy tie dye explosions. During a song about frowning, two large men came onto the stage wearing giant, yellow, frowning smiley face masks and began frolicking around Folds as he played his piano. The two frowning creatures then showed up sporadically throughout the remainder of the show. The creative elements along with the commentary format of the show made it an anything but ordinary concert going experience.
While many fans were pleased with the atypical format of the show, many left the theater longing for an encore of the artist’s familiar chart topping hits. The hits “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and “Army” both graced the short encore. However, as we left the hall, we heard disappointed fans wondering why favorites like “Still Fighting” and “The Luckiest” were absent from the set list. Because the first encore wasn’t a surprise – Folds mentioned that we would “pretend to leave and then come back” at the beginning of the show – fans were hoping that there would be a second encore performance. After the band finished playing “Army,” we got on our feet and clapped, and clapped, and clapped, but to no avail. After more than 10 minutes of clapping, screaming, and chanting, the band simply came on stage and took a bow. It was not the encore we were hoping for, but the final farewell was enough to send us out of the hall content and wishing we were still inside.
Outside of the show, police officers ushered fans away from the theater and onto Tremont Street. Venders were giving away raffle tickets and volunteers were jogging around with clipboards asking the attendees to register to vote. The sold-out show began at 7:30 p.m., and ended shortly after 11 p.m.