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Defending Folds

October 2nd, 2008

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As my friend Josh noted, last week’s Ben Folds concert at Constitution Hall was like being on the “in” of an elaborate Andy Kaufman prank.

I’d never seen anything like it. Folds played a set of material I’d guess 90 percent of the audience hadn’t heard before. His new album, “Way To Normal,” didn’t come out until this week. He played the entire record and all but one of the “fake” songs he leaked a couple months back. I’m willing to bet most people were unaware of the fake album and hadn’t heard the new material. Maybe they’d heard the single, “You Don’t Know Me,” featuring Regina Spektor (I seem to be the only person on earth who doesn’t like that song), but that’s about it. They wouldn’t have recognized anything until he dusted off a few standards during the encore.

It was an incredibly gutsy move, playing songs very few people had heard before to a packed house, fans who’d paid upward of $50. People have been complaining.

Here’s one fan, “Jeremy,” who was so upset he posted the following about the concert on Folds’s Myspace.com page:

“It was almost a slap in the face to your fans. Your show in DC UPSET MANY PEOPLE!!!!!  You should have heard the booos and people talking as we left.The crowd was bored…. and as we were leaving, there were tons of people wishing you would of mixed in older songs instead of just playing the whole new record through.  Ive been to about 15 Ben Folds shows…this is the first one you didn’t engage the crowd and get a standing ovation and left the crowd… well…frowning.”

I don’t know this guy so I don’t want to judge why, after 15 concerts he was upset and I was happy. I definitely enjoyed hearing material I’d never heard Folds perform before. I mean, how many times before the same concert tricks and audience participation moments get boring? After all these concerts, I’m thrilled to hear a song I’ve never heard him play before.

So, why did Folds do it?

Here’s what he told the Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger, before his concert:

“[The new material] is just a blast to play, it’s been sounding great and it’s really refreshing to have the extra instrumentation, too. I love piano bass and drums, it’s a really good—it’s my palate … I wouldn’t want someone to think, ‘Aw, well, I just want to hear his oldies’ and don’t come out and see it, because I think this is good.”

Would it be too much of a stretch to say he’s kind of bored, too, with how he’s been touring the last couple of years? He’s got a whole slew of new material he’s itching to play. He’s been through D.C. countless times before; here’s something new.

In that sense, the quality of the concert rests on the quality of the new material… as well as the venue.

First, the new stuff. I’m happy to report “Way To Normal” is a good album. Not a great album, but it’s good. It’s certainly livelier than 2005’s “Songs for Silverman,” but there’s a sense of “lively for the sake of lively” here, on tracks like “Errant Dog” and “Brainwashed.” Some of the lyrics seem to be tossed off, too. But, “Cologne” is as good of a break-up song as some of his best work (“Landed,” “Evaporated”). “Effington” might be a bit on the sillier side, but it’s got a great build and payoff from the opening a capella harmony line “If there’s a God/He is laughing/At us/And our football team.”

In concert it translates very well—especially the low-fi trick of shoving Altoid containers into the piano to get a fuzzed out, electronic effect on “Free Coffee.”

So if the music’s good, why were people “bored” and “upset?” Clearly part of it is from being unfamiliar with the material, but I think there’s more.

Constitution Hall has to be one of the worst places in D.C. to see a rock concert. It’s a seated venue, which pretty much sucks all the energy out of the room. Folds show are best when everyone is packed like sardines, singing along and feeding off the energy on stage. Seats are for the National Symphony Orchestra, not a guy who plays piano with his stool.

Yes, I’ve been to seated concerts where everyone stands, but for some reason Folds isn’t the case. I don’t want to be comfortable. I want to dance. Besides, every person who tried to rush the stage during the familiar encore songs were kindly escorted back to their seats by the friendly security guards.

Factor all of that in with the acoustics of the room. There was way too much reverb, as opening act Missy Higgins noted. Of course people aren’t having fun if they’re a passive audience at a poor-sounding rock concert.

But it could have been worse. I caught The Dodos, one of my favorite new bands at Sonar in Baltimore Sunday. They played their heart out. But, for whatever reason –poor sound, poor equipment, no one could understand a damn word singer Meric Long uttered into mic—even between songs.

Frustrated, we left before the encore.

BEN FOLDS TRIVIA

Regina Spektor has a guest spot on Folds’s new record, “Way To Normal.” All of his non-Ben Folds Five albums features a guest. Be the third person to e-mail all of them to jeiserike@insidenova.com and receive two free AMC Theaters movie passes courtesy of the Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeiserike@insidenova.com

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