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Ben Folds Goes It Alone

Ben Folds / The Divine Comedy
The Vic
Chicago, IL
March 2, 2002
Ben Folds
Ben Folds

Review and Photos by Barry Brecheisen

"Wesley Willis lives here. Liz Phair lives here. The Pope doesn't live here. The Pope doesn't live here...who cares?", sung the smiling man alone at his piano. "I call that Chicago." I made that up, one night on stage. Maybe I'll finish it one day."
From the opening song the charismatic Ben Folds set the tone for the evening. It would be a very loose atmosphere tonight providing songs from his entire catalog and a few made up along the way. He is touring on what is officially his first solo album entitled, Rockin' the Suburbs. That is if you don't count the experimental Volume I under the pseudonym Fear of Pop that has a special guest appearance, by of all people, William "Captain Kirk" Shatner. Ben Folds of course first hit the airwaves with his pop trio Ben Folds Five back in 1997 with the catchy hooks of songs like "Brick" and the "Battle of Who Could Care Less."The Divine Comedy He's now on his own, literally. For this leg of the tour he has decided to go by himself with just a piano and an arsenal of tunes. From the reaction of Saturday's audience they seem just fine with that. To my surprise, him alone banging on the keys provided a full over-all tapestry of sound. It's not the same feeling that they generate on the albums where a full band can take the songs through all it's peaks and valleys. Still, he's taking on a whole new direction to explore.
"Annie Waits" has a greater desperation of melancholy with the stripped down version. It also allows him complete freedom to take the show in any direction he likes at any given moment. Even taking requests by someone who shouts out "rock that bitch." With that you can see the wheels in his head turning as he integrates the outburst into a impromptu song with the chorus (of course) "rock that bitch"! It's fun, loose and gives the show a more intimate mood. It's almost like you're at a smoky hotel bar with the local piano man providing the soundtrack of the moment. Tonight's set consisted of a healthy collection of songs from his new CD that like many was released on the infamous date of September 11th. On top of that, Ben brings a "Storytellers" feel to the evening often talking and interacting with the audience. Even doing a special performance of "Lullaby." "Don't get mad if I start f*cking this up. I didn't practice this," admitted Ben before attempting the song from Ben Folds Five's last album. In fact he does hit a bad note or two as the audience bounces to the tune happily providing percussion with their hands. Later for fun, Ben sang "Them That Go," a old Ray Charles cover that he said has been in his head all day. "Nice singing. Totally encouraged especially if it's in tune," a smiling Ben disclosed to the vocal crowd after a key thrashing version of "The Best Imitation of Myself." One of three songs he would showcase tonight off of Ben Folds Five's self titled debut.
Another "Storyteller" moment is provided on the background of the title track "Rockin the Suburbs." "Originally started as "Korn Sucks," Ben confessed to the crowd. "They gave me some free press- Ben Folds f*cking sucks. Sounds like Cheer's music. Only one line exists now about about the computers," Ben concluded and kicked right into the tune. "I can't believe Korn was an inspiration for this. I love that shit," proclaimed a fan proudly. Here is a good example where his songs can suffer a bit by not having a band. This song is driven by pop guitar blasts and a steady drum beat that are indeed missing in this live format. During "Army" Ben enlists the aid of the fans to sing the missing horn part as he played conductor. It's a loose anything goes atmosphere.
So can be said for the opener, The Divine Comedy. Neil Hannon following Ben's lead is also touring solo. Much like Ben Folds Five, Neil is the singer, lyricist and brains behind his band. Bathed in only a red light, the black suited Neil performed with only an acoustic guitar at hand. His playful retro pop tunes too suffer from this format. Although mostly unknown in the U.S., The Divine Comedy has been successful in the British mainstream since the early '90s. It's a shame we aren't allowed to hear the music shine with a full fledged band. Maybe next time around. As Ben Folds expressed during his set, "I'm really happy to have Divine Comedy along. Neil's the shit"!

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