Over the Weekend: Ben Folds at the Anaheim House of Blues

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The Hype: Luckily for fans of comedy rock everywhere, Ben Folds exhibits two often mutually exclusive characteristics: genius and longevity. Borrowing from the template of  piano icons Billy Joel and Elton John, he has consistently produced music full of witticism and self-deprecating humor. Did I mention he's been at it since the early '90s? And while some of his material is hit-or-miss and tends to lean heavily on novelty, he's produced a heck of a lot of good stuff. Who can forget the time he teamed up with Weird Al Yankovic in the video for “Rockin' the Suburbs” and lampooned ass-clown Fred Durst? The guy's a hero! Now, with a recent all a cappella release, 2009's University A Cappella!, Folds is touring again and personally bringing his novel approach to the masses.

The Show: The  electric marquee read “Ben Folds & a
Piano.” This promise was honored when the house lights dimmed and Harry
's “One” began playing over the speaker system. Clad in a
black t-shirt, Folds, bespectacled and lanky, emerged from the side of the
stage and took his place at the piano. It all seemed simple enough — but it
was a ruse. Nothing about what Folds does is simple. For two hours, he
deftly tickled the ivories and delivered a quirky mix of songs. At
times he conveyed profound pathos and introspection,  others he was all childish hilarity. The second song of the set was one such tune.

Released on 2009's Stems and Seeds, the sophomoric “Bitch Went Nutz” was one of the evening's funniest. It's about a dude whose date is an obnoxious intellectual wannabe, and has lines like “She thinks because she reads books she must be
smarter/Now when I close my eyes I'll be fucking Jimmy Carter.”

Throughout the evening, Folds would strike a wide stance and pound at
the keys with a ferocity that belied his bookish appearance. Most
remarkable was the audience's participation, which gave the impression
that everybody in the room had practiced with Folds for weeks prior to
the show.

During the song “Bastard” off of 2005's Songs for Silverman,
Folds led the crowd in a cascading multi-part harmonic counterpoint. At
one point during the song, Folds stopped playing to serve as conductor
to the de-facto choir. Waving an invisible baton with supreme gusto, it
made you kind of sad for all the languishing middle schools that could
use a talented, eccentric and enthusiastic music director like Folds.

Other highlights included a duet with show opener Kate Miller-Heidke.
Together, they performed the song “You don't Know Me,” off of 2008's Way to Normal.
The studio version features Folds and Regina Spektor. And while Spektor
may think she's special because of her fluency in Russian, she has
nothing on Miller-Heidke, whose voice vacillates without
warning between a vampy lounginess and the vocal bellicosity of an
operatic singer. It was quite unexpected, and an eye opener for the
uninitiated. The highlight of her set, which featured only an acoustic
guitarist, was a rendition of Britney Spears' “Toxic.” Sounding like a
cross between a wonky theremin and a fat lady, the diminutive
Miller-Heidke belted out the synthesizer/violin hook of the song. And
though it smacked of the novelty often found in Fold's material, every
music fan should see her at least once before dying. You won't be disappointed. 

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