The lyrics on Ben Folds’ new album, Lonely Avenue, were written by author Nick Hornby, and Folds is proud to remind us of that fact. “This stuff comes from Nick Hornby’s head… he writes books!” Folds announces, eyes beaming with admiration, before launching into ‘Belinda’. The lyrical themes resemble some of Hornby’s other work, focusing on the real world problems of life and relationships, and they work well with Ben Folds’ recent brand of mature, easy listening Dad-pop.
While these tunes can be very soulful and moving, this writer finds himself reminiscing about the ironic backwards baseball-cap wearing anti-punk suburban rebel of Folds’ younger days.
As well as his usual line-up of bass guitar and raised drum kit, with Folds stooping over a grand piano (Nord synthesiser on the side), the backing band also features a backing keyboardist / French horn player, and the over-ambitious tour manager, who fills in with occasional tambourine, maraca, some triangle… acoustic guitar… maybe some cymbals… floor tom… and a bass drum for good measure. Indeed this former behind-the-scenes man seems desperate to steal the show, as he climbs onto the speakers next to the stage behind Folds’ back.
The third quarter of the set sees the backing band take a break and Folds perform solo, where he gives us a beautiful rendition of ‘Selfless, Cold, and Composed’, and a surprising highlight of the set ‘One Down’, part of a group of songs he wrote in a day simply to fulfill a contract obligation.
At various points in the show, Folds stops to improvise, expecting his band members to follow his every whim, or he leaps into an unprepared cover such as his play-it-by-ear attempt at ‘Carry on My Wayward Son’, originally by Kansas. The set also features humorously straight-faced cover versions of NWA’s ‘B****es Ain’t S***’ and Ke$ha’s ‘Sleazy’, and for the duet ‘You Don’t Know Me’, the kooky Australian support act Kate Miller-Heidke reappears to sing the parts Regina Spektor sings on the record. Miller-Heidke’s fantastic vocal range encompasses sweet girly whispers and operatic projections that bear likeness to the sounds of a theremin.
The short encore featured only two classic songs from “the Five”: the jazzy ‘Kate’ and the now-renowned ‘audience participation’ version of ‘Army’.
Truly, Ben Folds is a scholar of the world of popular music, and is capable of creatively expressing his inner emotions to the world. The fact is however, that the ‘nerd punk’, angry-at-the-world Ben Folds of his early work has grown up to be an affluent father of four in the Tennessee suburbs and the music has moved on to reflect that. But when he wants to, Folds can still bash that keyboard in a crouched standing position while head-banging like the good old days.