The set up Thursday night at the Riverside was minimalist. A lone piano stood in the center of the dark stage. “One (is the Loneliness Number)” plays from the speakers, marking the start of the show. A fitting number for a show aptly billed as “Ben Folds and a Piano.” However, it was not Folds’ voice coming from the speaker, but a recording playing as he walks up to the piano. It struck me as a missed opportunity, as the song seemed both fitting in the context of the show and a good pick to showcase Folds’ talent with both his voice and the piano.
The crowd, consisting mostly of people whose coming of age lined up with Folds’ heyday in the mid-90s, welcomed him warmly. He opened with a solid renditions of “Phone in a Pool,” laying the groundwork for what the rest of the show would consist of. Shortly after he brought in the audience’s participation for help with the next song, which ranged from as decent a harmony one could get from a hall of people, to the disorganized cacophony one might expect. Still, the song turned out well, and the crowd was pleased.
Next came the humorous “Effington.” The line, “God is laughing at us and our football teams” gave me a good chuckle as I tried to suppress memories of the Packers’ playoff loss to the falcons. He followed with an anecdote of the inspiration for the next song, “Not a Fan,” which dealt with a run-in with a knife-wielding non-fan who nevertheless made his way backstage to ask Folds about the meaning of a song.
Folds’ recruited the audience again to fill in for Regina Spektor’s part in “You Don’t Know Me.” The song was a high point, despite the absence of Spektor or another female vocalist. He followed it with “Capable of Anything” before the intermission
Following the intermission, Folds’ switched up the standard request process of obnoxiously shouting at the stage by inviting the audience to submit request by paper airplane. It was a fun and interesting way to do the second half, even if it did not stop people from obnoxiously shouting at the stage.
The paper planes that now covered the stage yielded a supply of fan favorites, including “Steven’s Last Night in Town.” It also included Folds’ popular live cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” off of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” album. While the song received plently of laughs and participation from the audience, I was not a fan. The humor comes from the juxtaposition of lyrics such as “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” with a dissonant soft piano ballad. To begin with, this concept was already explored to greater comedic effect, complete with video, five years before Folds debuted his cover by Dynamite Hack with their cover of Eazy E’s “Boyz in the Hood.” Eazy E is even referenced in the song that Folds covers. And if you haven’t heard of Dynamite Hack, it is because they were rightfully delegated to one-hit-wonder status following their brief run on the charts.
The joke of trying to sing a gangsta rap song in as “white” a style as possible only has so much mileage, and I would have thought it to been exhausted around whenever Dynamite Hack’s cover of “Boyz in the Hood:” first charted, or at least sometime in the twelve years since Folds started performing his cover. I will give Folds credit for attempting to contextualize the existence of gangsta rap and the socioeconomic conditions that gave rise to the song, although the audience seemed to take this as a further extension of the joke, content to simply laugh at and dismiss an entire genre of music reflecting experiences different than their own.
A few piano ballads later, a paper airplane happen to express my thoughts exactly. Folds’ unfolded the paper and read to the audience, “I already fell asleep once so please cut it short” and improvised a number based off it. Indeed, the second half of the show was marked by long-winded introductions to songs (a feature not lost on Folds, he would lampoon it with a Springsteen impression) and a lull as he looked through the scattered airplanes for song suggestions. This is where the obnoxious calls for requests that the airplanes would ideally prevent flooded in. After the improvisation, he went into an energetic rendition of “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” Folds is nothing if not self-aware, although sometimes that is not enough. None of the songs afterward stood out to me, nor did they abate my feelings previously expressed by the paper airplane. However, Folds consistently displayed his strong singing voice and deft if at times pounding piano playing. Fans of him seemingly got what they came for, whatever that may be, and left satisfied.