|Ben Folds (above, in North Carolina) has a new album due out tomorrow. (Gerry broome/associated press/file)|
Somewhere in the middle of his third, comically tortured explanation about what exactly was happening at his show Friday night at the Orpheum Theatre, Ben Folds joked "I don't know why I've made the decisions I've made."
More than a few people in the audience probably agreed, as Folds plunged into a set that challenged expectations. The nutshell explanation: Folds releases his third solo album, "Way to Normal," tomorrow. In an elaborate in-joke for his most plugged-in fans he and his band recorded several, often silly, alternative versions of the album's songs and deliberately leaked them to the Web. His regular set was devoted to the new, both fake and real, and he reserved the encore for a handful of well-known songs.
The risk-reward ratio was high. But the beauty of a Ben Folds concert is that pretty much no matter what the unhinged yet uniquely gifted piano man does, it's entertaining thanks to his devil-may-care performance style and deep well of charm.
He said that when he offered no explanation of the agenda in Washington, D.C., things went poorly. Folds figured once everybody in the Orpheum was in on the joke, presumably a good time would be had by all.
This was mostly true as the audience - with a few grumbles - cheered the new material and laughed and clapped at most of their cues. The frenetic and bratty "Errant Dog" and contemplative "Cologne" were particularly well received. A few of the "fake" songs were even better than their "real" counterparts, including the clever alternate "Dr Yang," which found Folds mocking songs that feature people visiting MDs for heartbreak.
But even with a fan base as dedicated and adventurous as Folds's the affair occasionally felt a little too inside baseball. It didn't help that some of the "Normal" songs tap an angrier, more cold-hearted vein like the acidic "The Frown Song." Folds turned that frown upside down, however, with a "fake" take that was full of snarky love. The encore was greeted with an explosion in energy as the crowd leapt at the chance to sing along to boppy older favorites like "Army," "Underground," and "Zak and Sara."
The new songs weren't the only changes afoot. For the first time Folds bulked up his backing band to four and employed a flashier light and video presentation.
Sweet-natured Aussie singer-songwriter Missy Higgins opened with a lengthy set of her pleasant "Grey's Anatomy" pop.