A Piano Man For the New Millennium

The heir apparent to the Elton John/Billy Joel musical fortune culled these 17 tracks from live performances recorded during a daring 6 month long nationwide solo tour. Daring because a guy and a piano needs to project like hell to fill some of the mid-sized halls in which Folds played, and he does. A guy and an acoustic piano can still fill a big space.

There’s more Elton than Joel in both his vampy piano playing and melodic constructs, but vocally his approach is far more direct and stripped down than either of his piano-men heroes, with not even a glimmer of vibrato or cloying sentimentality attached, but the Elton falsetto rings clear on some tracks. Mr. Folds wrings major dynamic contrasts from the piano, pounding almost impossibly hard—pianoforte pedal to the metal—while maintaining bracing harmonic clarity, and then transitions on a dime to “pianissimo.”

As for what’s of interest to Mr. Folds, it ranges from melancholic observations ala “Eleanor Rigby” ("Fred Jones, part 2")—about a guy getting summarily fired from his job after years of loyal service, to pure public cynicism (“One Down”), a song obviously about contract songwriting in which he goes from expressing pride in his craft to simply “shitting some out” to meet an obligation.

“Silver Street,” is about a kid who graduates college and hangs around too long. It’s one of the most effective on the compilation. Everyone knows someone like the song’s protagonist.

On “Not the Same,” which Mr. Folds explains is a true story about a guy who took acid at a party, climbed a tree and came down the next day a born again Christian, the audience participates as an enormous choir (having been coached by Mr. Folds beforehand), and the effect is truly stunning. There’s a touching, non-judgmental song about an abortion Mr. Folds and his girlfriend once endured.

Most of these tracks have already been released on studio albums with The Ben Folds Five. If you’re a fan and are familiar with them, hearing them stripped down might not be to your liking. On the other hand, if you need an introduction to Mr. Folds, there’s no better way than through these stark, bracing live recitals.

Mr. Folds is a fine performer, and an effective songwriter with a good melodic sense and a well-developed way with words, but it’s fair to say he’s not on the same poetic level as Bernie Taupin or on equal melodic footing with Elton John. When Folds launches into a moving cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” at the end of side 3, it will not be your familiarity with it that sets off sparks; it’s just a better song than what preceded it.

That said, when you listen to this very well recorded 2 LP set (recorded live to an 8 track something or other that I bet was an Alesis A-DAT), you will hear one of the few young musical performers today who can hold a big stage by himself and move an audience to shrieks and tears. Back when I was the age of the audiences Folds attracts, there were dozens of such artists. Perhaps one day there will be dozens more. For now, on this fine sounding 2 LP set Folds demonstrates why he’s got the field almost to himself.

Finally, if you want to hear another piano man cut more from the Randy Newman mold, but wildly original, subtle and enigmatic please, please please (as James Brown would say) check out Lee Feldman's two superbly recorded albums.