Ben Folds’ latest big project is his work with as artistic adviser with the National Symphony Orchestra, but in a show at The Republik on Friday night — part of his “Paper Airplane Tour” — he showed he has not left rock ’n’ roll behind.
Folds performed a 21-song solo piano set spanning 105 minutes and his entire career, ranging from the gorgeous pop balladry of “Landed” to the keyboard pounding of “Army.”
After opening with the sprightly “Phone in a Pool,” Folds followed with “Annie Waits,” imploring the audience to hit the song’s clap-along cues.
As the night went on, the crowd’s role would get more and more involved, and it wouldn’t be limited to the concert’s paper airplane request theme, as Folds showed some of the educative chops he’s displayed in his work with the NSO, trying, with varying success, to get the audience to sing together in three-part harmony on “Not the Same” and in four-part counterpoint on “Bastard.”
The lessons left him looking like a conductor at times, as he’d step to the stage’s edge and urge fans to go higher, thrusting his arms upward repeatedly.
Some of the best audience participation, though, was spontaneous. At any show, there are some who are just there for the hits, but this crowd seemed heavy with rabid fans who knew every album track inside and out, even each vocal fill. This paid off best on the charming bopper “You Don’t Know Me,” a duet with Regina Spektor from the 2008 album “Way to Normal.”
With his regular singing partner absent, Folds instead had hundreds of them, each knowing exactly when to chime in with a breathy “at alllll” or an exclamation to “say it!” He also left the song’s one profane line to the audience, which it delivered with relish.
On a side note, what is it about concerts that turns thirty- and forty-somethings into preteens so enthralled with swear words that they seem to still live lives ruled by their mothers, with vulgarities off limits? This would come up again in Folds’ biggest solo hit, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” at a point in the song meant to lampoon that very fascination.
Besides the audience participation, another recurring part of the show was Folds’ storytelling, which was polished and humorous.
This first anecdote came up early in the set, when he gave the crowded house a bit of what was the shape of things to come by introducing “Uncle Walter” by explaining how, growing up in North Carolina, he would sometimes be cornered by one of his father’s construction co-workers, or other adults, who would lay out their world view. (He noted how at the time he didn’t realize that these interactions would come to have a sort of “Nostradamus effect,” foreshadowing what our nation would become.)
The best might have been one about a show attendee (“not a fan,” as Folds would sing in the subsequent song) who quietly brandished a blade that Folds’ tour manager noticed before Folds did, possibly saving his life. Though ultimately a harrowing story, Folds laced it with detail and humor that gave the revelation of the knife more oomph. (Of course, it also helped that he wasn’t hurt.)
The paper airplane request aspect of the show also lends it some unpredictability, and another highlight was in that vein.
Just before intermission, after Folds explained the procedure for the paper airplane requests, he dived into the rollicking “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” from the Ben Folds Five’s 1997 breakthrough album “Whatever and Ever Amen.” The fun song about a houseguest who has overstayed his welcome featured Folds’ only foray of the night to an instrument other than his piano.
As “Steven’s” seemed to be winding down, a crew member emerged, walking to Folds behind the piano with a drum, which he quickly jumped over to. She then backpedalled as he continued to play and set it down on the right side of the stage. As he pounded away, she and another crew member set up the full kit around him and he embarked on a ferocious solo lasting several minutes.
Folds showed all night long what a great pianist he is, running up and down the 88 keys, varying the strength of his striking, proving he knows every inch of his chosen instrument with his fingers, arms and even at times fists, but it’s easy to forget even as you watch him, his playing somewhat obscured by the angle of the piano and the height of the stage. (The Republik’s TV monitors, which bookend the stage, were a godsend in this respect, providing a perfect angle for attendees to appreciate Folds’ nimble fingers.)
The detour to the drums came out of nowhere and served as a reminder that as gregarious and charismatic as Folds is, at the root of it all is that he’s a great musician.
Folds’ opening act was local singer-guitarist Yoza, whose eight-song half-hour was better received than most opening acts are, with the audience largely attentive. She expressed an appreciation of Folds’ songwriting but also showed some of his flair for engaging the audience, with a low-key, chatty approach featuring some nice, funny anecdotes.