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Ben Folds engages energetic crowd at Stepan

Analise Lipari | Monday, November 13, 2006

The pop-infused stylings of the multitalented Ben Folds quickly won over students at the Student Union Board’s big fall concert Friday night at the Stepan Center. Folds’ infectious personality and extensive library of songs attracted a sold-out audience to what will likely be the highlight of SUB’s fall schedule.

The opening act, the Meatloaf-esque and accordion-playing Corn Mo (a stage name for singer John Cunningham), set an irreverent and off-kilter tone to the evening with songs describing both time travel and lollipops. His glam-rock performance contrasted with Folds’ earthier sensibilities, but was less a detraction than an amusing detour.

Folds opened with “Trusted,” off of his 2005 solo album “Songs for Silverman,” immediately grabbing the interest of a ready audience. Sing-alongs between Folds and the crowd began with “Trusted” and continued throughout the night, adding to the contagious atmosphere and creating a cheerful rapport between Folds and the audience that would carry through the entirety of his performance.

The bespectacled, scruffy-haired Folds endeared himself to the audience with his sense of humor and personable attitude throughout the show. Dressed casually and with a welcome lack of pretense, Folds was an engaging, likeable performer who carried the nearly one-man show with his effortless and genuinely happy attitude. Periodically making reference to the “geodesic dome” that is the Stepan Center, he joked with the crowd and set a fun tone for the night.

Folds performed a variety of well-known songs from the impressively vast annals of his musical career, drawing from different albums to create a set list that was both recognizable and well planned. Popular favorites such as “Annie Waits” were played with gusto, as Folds hammered notes out on both piano and synthesizer to create a whirlwind of ear-catching and well-played sound.

The concert changed pace musically several times, as Folds began strongly with “Trusted” and slowed halfway through the show. Prefacing that portion of the concert with a quick comment about songs of advice and love, Folds performed “The Luckiest” and “Mr. Jones Part 2,” both off of his critically and financially successful first solo album, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” originally released in 2001. Both of these tracks, more contemplative and musically relaxed than others performed that evening, effectively changed the tone of concert for a brief but welcome break between more energetic tracks.

Later in the performance, Folds covered a Dr. Dre song in his personal, piano-centric fashion. Hearing the king of the suburbs embrace a typically urban style of music, in typical “male, middle class and white” fashion, was a humorous and irreverent move on Folds’ part, and his cheeky take on the rap hit was terrific.

One unexpected and pleasantly surprising song of the night was Folds’ cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” Taking a different detour from the original material than Iron and Wine, who also remade this particular track recently, Folds used his piano and synthesizer capabilities to put his own spin on the recognizable song.

His sweetly charming, Everyman-type voice – not unlike that of indie-tronica mastermind and Postal Service founding member Ben Gibbard, but unique in its own right – fit the song perfectly and sparked an uproar from the audience. While the general impression of any cover implies being of lesser quality, this in particular was lovely and well played.

During multiple songs, Folds actively encouraged audience participation, at one point instructing different vocal ranges to sing parts of a four-part harmony, and at another for the left and right halves of the crowd to impersonate saxophones and trumpets, respectively. Laboring to encourage the crowd to participate was almost unnecessary, however, as Folds attracted positive reactions from both long-time fans and newcomers in the crowd.

Folds may be one among many artists on today’s musical scene, but as Friday’s concert proved, he is by far one of the most popular on the college circuit. Originally touring campuses with his nineties-era band, Ben Folds Five, Folds is continually growing in popularity among university students thanks to his indie sensibilities, likeable personality, affecting lyrics and sheer musical talent.

It is the recognizable nature of Folds’ songs – and the artist’s appearance – that creates a comforting atmosphere of kinship and common experience among his fans. This was an essential aspect of Friday’s show. Even the Stepan Center’s limited capacity of approximately 1,800 people helped in adding to that sense of intimacy between performer and audience.