red lights


Night of the new
school piano men

Rufus Wainwright / Ben Folds
Ravinia Festival
Highland Park, IL
June 18, 2004

Ben Folds
Ben Folds

Story and Photos By Andy Argyrakis

The pairing of Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds was incredibly sensible for an evening under the stars at the beautiful and acoustically pristine Ravinia Festival. Both artists are critically lauded relative newcomers to modern rock and each hits the stage armed only with a piano, a notepad and their boisterous pipes. The pair is billed as co-headliners throughout the summer, performing separate sets and rotating the closing position each date. For the Chicagoland appearance, Wainwright ended the night touching mostly on his conceptually driven new record Want One, along with 2002's best of list frequenter Poses.
Rufus Wainright From the moment the youngster took the stage, he could've easily been pegged the male Tori Amos given his lush arrangements, deeply personal songwriting and sophisticated pop grandeur. Material from Want One focused on Wainwright's recent session sifting through his life and separating what he merely wants from what he actually needs. Not only did he present issues with which listeners could relate (from love to loss) but he also dealt with them in a plethora of ways, sometimes as a straightforward piano balladeer, other times behind an acoustic guitar and occasionally with vocal predominance propelled by his upper register.
The only elements lacking in songs like "Dinner At Eight" and "Pretty Things" were the fleshed out arrangements found on the record, that at times hinted at the orchestral or were bathed in instrumentally complicated earnestness. However, that stripped back approach allowed the brooding lyrics to be that much more exposed throughout the serene "Vibrate," the poetic "Beauty Mark" and a stunning cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (later revived by Jeff Buckley). In fact the singer/songwriter's high ranged reflections often mirrored that obvious muse, and especially in the case of expository songs like "April's Fool" and "Want," picked up where the late great left off.
Though originally the front man of the comically inclined trio Ben Folds Five, first act Folds is burgeoning as of late in solo territory. His set touched on the band's past classics ("Kate," "Philosophy" ) though a strong potion of the show was pulled from 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs. Character driven cuts like "Zak and Sara" and "Not the Same" demonstrated Folds' sly use of lyrical craftsmanship, often steeped with subtlety and innuendo. Those, along with "Army" and "Boxing," were also steeped in pop minded piano playing that at times resembled cross generational greats like Billy Joel and Elton John.
Aside from revisiting familiar material, Folds also hinted at what's to come on his next full-length album with "There's Always Someone Cooler Than You" and "Not Too Late" (tunes that are only available to fans' via the artist's website on the limited edition EPs Speed Graphic and Sunny 16. Even with relatively minimal circulation, die-hards seemed to know most of the words and joined Folds with dutiful voices, despite those on the lawn being sprinkled by rain. Thankfully, the weather held up long enough so both artists could showcase such specialties and remind concertgoers that not every modern rocker subjects themselves to formulaic mush. If only Folds' set would've been a bit longer than the hour granted and the pair would've collaborated at some point during the show (perhaps exchanging duet time like Joel and John on their recent tours) it would have been an ideal evening.

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