Ben Folds: He’s big and important

Ben Folds rocked Kendall Hall last Friday with storytelling, a sing-along and his trademark piano-banging.

Folds took to the stage dressed in red corduroys and a blue T-shirt emblazoned with “Steelworkers for Dukakis.” He gave an intense, crowd-pleasing performance. Folds barely sat on his stool all night, even for mellower numbers, such as the first song, “Don’t Change Your Plans.”

After damaging the piano during the second song, “Zak and Sara,” Ben Folds entertained the crowd with a pirate joke and his recent struggles with an “E-Bay prick” while a crew member fixed the problem. He then played his cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” at an audience member’s request.

Most of the show was punctuated by song requests and witty stories. Folds attributed his chatty mood to “jet lag,” having just flown in from Australia after a brief tour with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee (aka the Bens).

Folds’ talent as a musician shined through not only in his rapid-fire ivory tickling, like in “Narcolepsy,” which was complete with full-arm key smashes, but also in his improvisational skills. What started out as a cover of Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” quickly transformed into something else, including the adlibbed lyrics, “I’m a piano-playing asshole and I obviously don’t know this song.”

Even selections from his own catalogue were subject to on-the-spot reworking, as evidenced in Folds’ rendition of “Rock This Bitch” when someone shouted out “Jazz!” as a suggestion.

“Ooh, I could do Smooth Jazz: white-ass . music to go to sleep to!” Folds said. After fumbling for a bit since he claimed to have taken jazz lessons for “about 10 minutes,” he finally cranked out some jazz chords and scatted. “It’s request line at the College of New Jersey,” he said in his best Barry White voice.

Other requests included, “Army,” “Not the Same” and “Philosophy,” since the audience favored the integral harmonies, back-up fills and instrumental accompaniment for these songs.

For “Army,” Ben Folds divided the audience down the center, with one half singing the trumpet part and the other half singing the saxophone part, in a call-and-answer style. While teaching the audience the three-part harmony from “Not the Same,” Folds even complimented the voices of the audience. “Gosh, that’s pretty . that’s a great blend!” he remarked while directing.

In between songs, Folds shared song origins and random anecdotes. He explained that “The Luckiest” was originally written for the soundtrack of “Loser,” a forgettable teen flick starring Jason Biggs. The scene that it was included in ended up getting cut, so Folds reworded the lyrics into a love song. Also, before his attempt at covering the Built to Spill song, “Twin Falls,” Folds revealed his personal ties to New Jersey, admitting that he used to live in Upper Montclair.

Another memorable moment was the performance of “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” an up-tempo number. Towards the end of the song, Folds suddenly switched from piano to drums. First, one crew member rushed out holding a tom while two other crew members frantically assembled the rest of the kit. Soon Folds was immersed in a full-blown drum solo as the audience cheered him on.

“The drumming was the most surprising part,” Ed Adams, senior fine arts major, said.

Ben Folds delivered a solid two hours of entertainment, closing out the night with the two-song encore of “Evaporated” and “Song for the Dumped” in G minor, “the second saddest key,” he said.

“This is the best Ben show I’ve ever seen,” Erica Engter, senior graphic design major, said.

“I love the singing,” Amy Crane, senior psychology major, said.

Mop-haired twins Tegan and Sara opened with their brand of folk tinged with hard rock. The pair swapped acoustic and electric guitars for different songs that showcased their raspy, yet sweet, voices.