To many my age, Ben Folds is known for being one third of the nerd rock outfit Ben Folds Five that gained popularity back in the mid-’90s with songs like “Brick,” “Underground,” and “Army.” Ben parted ways with Darren and Robert in 2000, and has since gone on to release three solo albums, a number of EPs, and even produced the album Has Been for William Shatner.
In 2009, Ben would go on to gather up a grip of a cappella singing groups from colleges around the country for a cover album featuring songs from Ben Folds, as well as his solo output. Given his interest and passion for the a cappella sound, it wasn’t that shocking that he would be asked to be a celebrity judge on NBC’s a cappella singing competition “The Sing Off.”
“The Sing Off” has also provided a great service to of a cappella singers who once had limited exposure, including 22-year-old Kenton Chen. Chen, a member of the southern California singing group The Backbeats (and third-place winner on the second season of “The Sing Off”) was approached by Mr. Folds about opening up for him on his next tour. Making good on his promise, Ben took Chen on the road for the West Coast swing of his Lonely Avenue tour, bringing reality TV magic to life at the House of Blues in Anaheim.
A few minutes ahead of the scheduled start time the lights dimmed and the curtain pulled back to expose Kenton alone on stage with a stool, a few microphones, a Baldwin grand piano (same piano Ben would use for his set), and a box that would allow Kenton to cue and play background instrumentation during his set. In total silence, he went into a cover of “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan. His range was extremely impressive, from high falsetto to deep bass. He also covered Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” a song I’d never heard before, but it was an impressive performance. He moved from the stool to the piano where he took on the task of playing an original song called “Elena.” When performing non-a cappella songs, his voice and tone sounds a lot like Robin Thicke, especially when he hits the higher register. While hitting those lower notes, elements of Stevie Wonder comes out of his vocal stylings.
After a short intermission following Kenton’s 30-minute set, Ben and his backing back appeared on stage. They immediately went into “Levi Johnson’s Blues” off of Lonely Avenue. Lonely Avenue is a collaboration between Ben Folds and English novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy, Fever Pitch), featuring music by Ben and lyrics by Nick.
Following the opening number, Ben noticed the line of photographers (including myself) in front of the stage and proclaimed, “The paparazzi is here,” and admitted that his shows can be quite boring for photographers. So after a costume change (consisting of putting on a beret), he performed his signature “chair toss” against the keys of his piano three times. Then took his synthesizer and ran past us playing it like he was performing a guitar solo. We thanked him for the action shots, and the show continued on.
The material performed by Ben included a few Ben Folds Five tracks, including the ever-popular crowd participation numbers “Army” and “Kate,” to their hit “Brick,” in which Ben said, “If I would have taken five seconds to think about it, I would’ve never put this on the record.” The song tells the story of Ben’s high school girlfriend getting an abortion, and his feelings about it. He also played “Emaline,” a song he wrote at the age of 18.
Most of the set featured music from Folds’ solo albums. “Zak and Sara,” “Annie Waits,” and “Rockin’ The Suburbs” were all crowd pleasers off of the nearly 10-year-old album Rockin’ The Suburbs. From Songs For Silverman, Folds performed “You to Thank,” “Landed,” and “Jesusland.” A few cuts from Way to Normal were played, including “You Don’t Know Me” and “Effington.”
Two particular songs really brought the goosebumps — “Fred Jones Part Two” and “Still Fighting It” really swept me up as the crowd sang along to these two bittersweet tunes. The evening also had some humorous moments as well. While Ben was speaking between songs, he was heckled by an audience member shouting, “Shut up and play!” Ben — who was able to coerce her to apologize — followed this by improvising a jam that turned into a version of “Rock This Bitch.”
Ben also told a story via an improvised song about taking a limo with William Shatner to Disneyland; upon finding it closed, Ben sings, “That doesn’t mean a fucking thing to William Shatner — He just says, ‘Hey, I’m William Shatner,’ and they turn on the rides.” Later in the set, Ben performed an amusing cover of Ke$ha’s “Sleezy,” and several more improvised numbers.
Ben also performed with an impressive backing band, including a drummer, bassist, keyboard player (who busted out the French horn on “Jesusland”), and a second percussionist who jumped on the acoustic guitar during a few songs. The band shined during an extended jam session as Ben played bass and the second percussionist performed an insane drum solo.
The show ended with the crowd favorite “Not The Same” off of Rockin’ The Suburbs. It is here than Ben became a music teacher and divided the crowd into harmony parts for the song. Throughout the song, he gave the crowd cues to come in with their harmony, and once the song ended, he conducted the crowd alone. Seeing Ben Folds live is an amazing experience. He feeds off the crowd during his show, and knows how to keep everyone in attendance involved — it’s truly an interactive experience.