Live: Ben Folds Swears Profusely, Goofs Around, And Covers Ke$ha At Beacon Theatre


Ben Folds
Beacon Theatre
Tuesday, December 14

Better Than: Watching The Sing-Off

Ben Folds is doing fine, thanks — onstage with four dudes who all look more or less like Shy Ronnie, doing his trademark amiable sort of lounge-prog thing, pounding his piano with enraged-cartoon-elephant aplomb, turning a long-ago-scrubbed threat from Levi Johnston’s Facebook page (“You fuck with me and I’ll kick your ass”) into a chorus, and the crux of his 2001 hit “Rockin’ the Suburbs” (“Y’all don’t know what it’s like/Being male, middle-class and white”) into a full-crowd sing-a-long hook, that song a mocking parody of the early-aughts nü-metal dark ages that Folds himself, perhaps surprisingly, survived. He cites New York City, in fact, as the one place he could’ve moved to and thrived in back when no one else would come to see him play. A problem he no longer has, BTW: This show sold out handily. Yes, Ben Folds: doing just fine.

His latest deal is Lonely Avenue, a you-do-the-words-I’ll-do-the-music collaboration with famous literary guy/professional rock-critic antagonizer Nick Hornby, who penned the Levi Johnston tune that kicks off this evening, plus an astute faux-power ballad about a morose one-hit wonder (that’s “Belinda,” and Folds doesn’t do “Brick” tonight, pointedly), plus a particularly wacky and enjoyable Devo-esque new-wave jam called “Saskia Hamilton,” about how much Hornby likes the poet’s name. All this is cheesy and erudite and stupendously likable, as is Folds’ wont: His flip side is expertly tear-jerking maudlin ballads, including Avenue‘s “Picture Window” (no man alive writes better sad-person-in-hospital songs) and the far older “Still Fighting It,” which includes the line “The roast-beef combo’s only $9.95” and still makes my wife cry.

As a stage-banterer, Folds is the sort of guy who, when some (female!) dipshit shouts out “Free Bird,” will actually play “Free Bird,” for like 10 minutes, with improvised lyrics and an righteous outro jam and everything. Later, when he blows a few lines to the Ben Folds Five favorite “The Last Polka,” it spirals off into another 10-minute jag wherein he improvises more lyrics apologizing for forgetting the words, than takes over the drums for both a lengthy solo and an impromptu, charmingly half-assed version of “Karaoke Supernova.” His band is clearly prepared for this sort of thing, even if that just involves being prepared to stand around and watch him do it.

Oh, and he also covers Ke$ha — “Sleazy,” specifically, if only to force his bass player to sing the line “Rat-a-tat-tat on your drum drum drum/The beat’s so phat gonna make me come.” It’s understandable if you’re wincing right now, at the whole Ironic Cover thing, which is a problem right now, generally. (Click on this! I dare you!) (Ben also has a gentle soft-rock version of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which he perhaps mercifully doesn’t pull out tonight, as it’s way more problematic.) But like every other perhaps ill-advised thing Folds does, it gets over via winsome goofiness and total commitment. He doesn’t seem to care if you don’t respect the hustle, but it’d be nice if you did.

Critical Bias: Rockin’ the Suburbs was my Pazz & Jop #1 for 2001. True story.

Overheard: “I just wanted to hear one lousy song,” snarls an angry man stalking down 72nd Street afterward. Yeah, I wanted to hear “Don’t Change Your Plans,” too.

Random Notebook Dump: Lotta Jersey Shore-style fist-pumping in my row during the generally subdued and reflective “Bastard.” Seemed to be non-ironic.

Set List
Levi Johnston’s Blues
Doc Pomus
Sleazy [Ke$ha cover]
You to Thank
Saskia Hamilton
Free Bird [yep]
Still Fighting It
From Above
Picture Window
Practical Amanda
The Last Polka
Karaoke Supernova
Annie Waits
Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)
Zak and Sara
U Don’t Know Me
Rockin’ the Suburbs

Not the Same