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Rockin’ the Ballroom

Folds Returns to Avalon for a Solo Success

By Sandra M. Chung

Ben Folds Five, Bleu


Saturday, September 15, 2001

Introducing the Ben Folds Bodily Fitness Three-Step Plan. Step One: Learn to play the piano really well. Step Two: Remove your rear end from the bench. Step Three: Bang on the keys like a wild monkey child. Ben Folds is a master of what can only be called Aerobic Piano. When he wasn’t crooning a slow number or standing up front working the melodica keys, he was treating the Saturday night crowd at Avalon to a kinetically furious showcase of the songs from his new solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs.

The opening act, Bleu, is a local up-and-comer whose popularity has been growing steadily as he racks up awards (top prize at 2001 WBCN Rock and Roll Rumble), award nominations and radio play. Bleu’s voice strongly resembles that of Folds, though his delivery is decidedly more in-your-face and his instrument of choice is an acoustic guitar. Despite lacking back-up musicians and joking repeatedly about being a rock-and-roll act, Bleu gave a string-breaking, oxygen-consuming performance that complemented the headliner rather well. Bleu performed five songs from his first original solo album, Headroom, as well as “Somebody Else,” a demo available in mp3 form on his website, <>. He finished with a respectable cover of Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer,” which garnered enthusiastic applause and whetted the crowd’s appetite for Folds.

After a long sound check, Folds’ band (not to be mistaken with the Five) took the stage at 8:15 p.m. Wearing a white baseball cap emblazoned with the word “PEACE” atop an American flag, Folds plopped down in front of an upright piano stage right and sallied into straight-off-the-album versions of “Not the Same,” “Zak & Sara,” and “Fired.” After a gut-trembling bass solo at the end of “Annie Waits,” Folds introduced bassist Millard Powers.

The audience went wild for “The Ascent of Stan,” a bass-heavy electronic piece with a strong dance beat appropriate to the venue. They were considerably less excited about “Losing Lisa” and “Still Fighting.” “Gone” was the highlight of the middle of the set, a bitter post-relationship number reminiscent of “Song for the Dumped.”

After “Gone,” Ben moved to the front of the stage and strapped on his melodica. For the uninformed, a melodica is a small, piano-like instrument that sounds something like an electronic accordion without bellows. Ben’s melodica is a red number rigged to be held like a guitar; it resembles a keyboard on stick. Folds jammed on it as if it were a guitar during “Make Me Mommy,” a hilarious denunciation of parental authority. Folds introduced “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” the tongue-in-cheek title track to his new album, by announcing that “this next song was deemed unsuitable for Boston modern rock radio.”

Everyone in the club cut loose on “Rockin’,” with Ben turning his hat backwards for the hip-hop breakdowns and getting the audience to wave their hands in the air while Powers and backup vocalist/lead guitarist “Snuzz” Uzzell ran with the punk guitar riffs.

Between stretches of incredibly tight keyboard work, Folds bubbled over with laid-back, quirky humor. After some sweaty, stage-thumping breakdowns at the end of “Still Fighting,” he stripped down to a grungy white t-shirt and proclaimed, “Now I look like a total redneck.” When he paused to take requests and an audience member shouted out “play a song,” he responded with an improvised ditty: “Play a song / Shut the f--- up / Just play a song / You paid to be here / So now you think / You can tell me what to play / Put down your drink / Shut the f--- up.”

Folds also took the time to explain the stories behind some of his songs, many of which are character sketches. “Zak & Sara” is about a girl who goes to an instrument store in 1984 and envisions the future wave of electronica and techno while her boyfriend plays boring 80s music on his guitar. “Fred Jones Part 2” is the sequel to “Cigarette,” which takes its first two lines directly from the first sentence of an article about an old man who works for a newspaper.

The unreleased “Karaoke Supernova” is the story of Hiro, a 51-year-old Japanese man who left his family for his daughter’s best friend, Yuko. “Yuko understands him,” Folds deadpanned to the audience, and drummer Jim Bogios yelled, “She sucks his cock,” to uproarious laughter. Folds continued his story: “So they go to a rock concert. They go to see Jesus perform live on a Saturday night and they have backstage passes.” Yuko runs off with Jesus’s drum programmer and leaves Hiro to lament: “I don’t want to grow old / Won’t you let me explode / In a karaoke supernova?”

Folds went for nostalgia with the first three encores: “The Best Imitation of Myself,” “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” and “Philosophy,” all of which he wrote with his former group, Ben Folds Five. Despite cheering loudly for the Five’s songs, audience members chatted rudely during “The Luckiest,” a solo love song to his wife from his new album. Folds and his new band ended the night with a rip-roaring rendition of another Five favorite, “Song for the Dumped.” At the end of “Dumped” he climbed atop a nearby amplifier and dropped a stool on the piano, his live show trademark.

Avalon appeared to be a comfortable venue for Folds, who performed there when he was still the lead man of the Five. The atmosphere Saturday night was mischievous, with band members head-bopping and dancing around the stage. The humor and music delighted an inactive though vocal audience. No matter where he is or who plays backup, Folds’ fans follow him for good reason.

Ben Folds is currently on tour in the United States and Japan. Bleu plays at the Middle East on September 22nd.