Ben Folds is The Man. I'm talkin the MAN. THE man.
Having gotten that brief observation out of the way, I'll start at the beginning...
Last Tuesday night, I had the magic combination: Mix 3 parts superb performances, 1 part phenomenal acoustics & 1 part perfect weather. Shake it with a sold-out crowd, garnish with 10th row seats, and you'll get the divine cocktail I knocked back last week. I had mysteriously stumbled across the ingredients to love potion number 9. Or the stairway to 7th heaven.
Up first: Rufus Wainwright -- Rufus has been one of my favorite discoveries since he opened for Tori Amos at DC's DAR Constitution Hall 2 years ago. Rufus is a phenomenal songwriter with a knack for hummable melodies and deep-delving, often wickedly funny lyrics. I'm always impressed by young artists who can stand on a large stage all by themselves and hold a crowd with confidence. We were with him through the whispers and the crescendoes -- old fans and virgin ears alike. I love that he wears his alternative lifestyle proudly on his sleeve with aplomb. And his between-song banter is hilarious. (How rare is that?! Usually we just want singers to shut up and sing, am I right?)
Some highlights: One of my favorite songs from his first album, Poses, "One Man Guy," originally recorded by his famous father, Loudon Wainwright. The kicker: the guys from Guster came out as his backing band and helped Rufus sing the four-part harmonies. Brought the house down. Keeping it all in the family with his musical mom, Kate McGarrigle on piano, he introduced the next song by saying that he started out his career performing it with her when he was nine. We all just about died when he busted out "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." What could have been shlocky dreck just for the laughs turned out to be a highlight of the show. Those who had only heard of Rufus through the Moulin Rouge soundtrack were thrilled when he played "Complainte De La Butte", sung entirely in French. Not a tall order for this native son of Quebec. I only wish he'd sung the Beatles' "Across the Universe" from the I Am Sam soundtrack. *sigh* But all told, a divine performance, couldn't have asked for more.
On second: Guster -- I'd never seen Guster before, nor had I owned any of their CDs. Suffice it to say that I am now the happy owner of two, count 'em, two Guster CDs. Plus, it kind of felt like old home week, as I remember them from the Boston music scene -- they formed at Tufts University. I must say, I'm a sucker for the bongo man. He took jangly folk rock and made it grooveable. Not that they'd be bad without the bongos. He just adds quite a bit to the mix. As does the multi-instrumentalist who swapped from guitar & pedal steel to piano and assorted noisemakers. I was surprised how many songs I recognized. I realized these guys have saturated pop culture far more than I gave them credit for. The highlight of the set for me: They invited Ben Folds out to play piano and sing a tune. Are you sensing a trend?
Last, but not least: Ben Folds -- Did I mention that Ben Folds is THE MAN? Ahem. If I had ever at any point thought twice about including him in my Top 10 Shows of All Time list (I've never thought twice about it, but if I had...), his place in the pantheon was reconfirmed that night. If you ever, EVER have the opportunity to see Ben Folds within a three hour driving radius, DO NOT MISS HIM. He fills up the house with his personality within seconds of setting foot on stage. I've often wondered just what it is about Ben that puts his fans in rabid fits of rapture when he plays. I think it must be the hilarious lyrics that tell tales of a self-proclaimed misfit nerd making his way in the world. He's the everyman everyone wants to go have a beer with. Yes, that, plus his melodies are immediately hummable and the songwriting indulges in campy, rafter-rocking anthems. He held us in the palm of his hand (whenever it wasn't otherwise occupied pounding away on the piano).
Highlights: Have you ever seen a lone artist on stage get an audience to sing in three part harmony? He conducted us, standing on his Steinway. Did I mention that he also got the audience to divide into a horn section and sax section, to fill in for the backing band that wasn't there? I'm not kidding! It doesn't stop there. He brought Rufus out to help him sing a poignant rendition of "Careless Whisper", by, you guessed it, George Michael. I loved the freeform jam he popped on the Guster boys without warning, giving them only "Key of D" as an indication of what was to come. He proceeded to sing as if he was possessed by the soul & pipes of Ronnie James Dio. They had a blast, and so did we. Run, don't walk, to your nearest Ben Folds concert right now.
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