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Ben Folds brings tales, talent in equal measure to Riverside show

Brianna Griepentrog
Pabst Theater Group

Something I’ve always suspected about Ben Folds was confirmed during Tuesday night’s show at the Riverside Theater.

It’s not that he’s a wonderful pianist, which he is. Or that he’s a fashion icon, because he isn’t (although the consistency in his wardrobe over almost three decades is admirable). Quite simply, Ben Folds is among the very best storytellers in this generation of musicians.

I say this because my two favorite moments from the concert had nothing to do with playing music. It was early in the set, and he paused to talk about his Patreon (riveting start, I know). During the pandemic, he offered that insiders’ club songwriting exercises, one of which involved using headlines from that day’s news as a jumping-off point. He went on to explain the following prior to the next two songs (both from new album What Matters Most):

  1. “Fragile,” an emotionally wrenching song about a toxic relationship, stemmed from a news story about a homeowner catching a burglar, who proceeded to cry and offer $250 for the stuff he broke.
  2. “Kristine from the Seventh Grade,” about a fictional former grade-school classmate who grew up to bombard social media with misspelled conspiracy theories, started as an op-ed written by someone who didn’t want to take their shoes off in their friends’ homes.

If, instead of the 18 songs Folds played Tuesday night, his set was eight songs preceded by an explanation of their origins, I would’ve walked out equally satisfied with the songwriting TED Talk I just attended.

As it was, the evening felt like a gathering of longtime friends. In addition to building wardrobe consistency, Folds has a loyal following (myself included, clearly) from those three-ish decades in music. So anytime he plays a room, there’s a very good chance dozens — if not hundreds — of those people have already enjoyed a Ben Folds performance together, but separately.

That gleeful familiarity shined brightest during “Not the Same” toward the end of the set. Twenty years ago, when he toured with just a piano, Folds spent a minute or two splitting the crowd into sections and teaching them the song’s three-part harmony. These days, he whips through it in about 20 seconds and still winds up with this reliably heart-warming moment:

Since I’m on the topic of harmonies, it’d be a major oversight to not call out Tim Harrington and Paul Wright from Tall Heights, who were in the recording studio for Folds’ new album, opened for him Tuesday and jumped in as part of his backing band. The guitarist/cellist duo set the tone for the night by combining musicianship with a healthy dose of humor, both in their banter and their set list. I’ll just say that sometimes it takes a man with a cello to make you realize the depths of desperation in blink-182’s “Dammit.”

Harrington and Wright’s voices intertwined in sorrowful and soaring moments as openers and as backing musicians — a group that also included Paul Dumas on drums, Ross Garren on harmonica and Derrick Wong on bass (Derrick, please always be that happy forever and ever). With Folds’ piano positioned stage right, it felt like a shared space among all of the talent, and the night was better for it.

Set list

  1. Exhausting Lover
  2. Winslow Gardens
  3. Clouds With Ellipses
  4. Losing Lisa
  5. Fragile
  6. Kristine from the Seventh Grade
  7. The Ascent of Stan
  8. Still Fighting It
  9. Back to Anonymous
  10. What Matters Most
  11. Landed
  12. You Don't Know Me
  13. Effington
  14. Not the Same
  15. Moments
  16. Annie Waits
  17. Still
  18. Zak and Sara