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Ben Folds thrives without Five – Review

A spirited performance and a clear delineation of material Monday helped Ben Folds re-establish himself – and prove the viability of a solo career – without the two musicians who constituted the “Five” in his old band.

Songs from the new album “Rockin’ the Suburbs” dominated the first hour of music, save for the tragically comical “Karaoke Superstar,” and after a quick break, Folds took the stage solo for 25 minutes of earlier tunes until joined again by the band for “Song for the Dumped.” Folds, on record and in concert, has proven himself quite proficient with no numbers after his name.

Still meek and carrying himself like a college freshman lip synching to his favorite records, Folds manages to convey a comfort level here that didn’t necessarily exist with the Five, the members of which seemed to look around the stage for guidance from one another. Maybe it’s the simple act of adding a guitarist to the piano-bass-drums mix; here it fleshes out Folds’ pop sound, ramps up the punk aesthetic and, visually, helps fill the stage.

With his off-center songs overflowing with observations on the mundane, Folds slips in and out of characters, playing the bully, the punk or, as is usually the case, the put-upon guy who isn’t quite a loser but nevertheless seems to be missing out on the fun stuff. Audience members, as usual, not only hang on every word, they gladly sing along and add harmonies, easily won over by Folds’ facial expressions and spirited actions.

In the title track, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” he has something of a minor hit. It pushes his generally witty humor toward all-out goof, but it’s the only song on the disc that lines him up with Barenaked Ladies or the director of the song’s video, Weird Al Yankovic. The tune is a wistful observation, a teen movie turned into song, his point of view far younger here than in the album’s works that concern being fired from a job, losing a girlfriend who had become a best friend or even counting your lucky stars that you have fallen in love. Onstage, he’s convincing in all of these guises.

This nerd rock pioneer, a North Carolinian with collegiate appeal but the appearance of a townie, textures his songs with the cozy atmospherics that make the wordy barrage easy to digest. Hardly a throwback, he does certainly know 1970s tricks of the trade; much as the Billy Joel influence runs through his melodies and voicings, he has never once even suggested he likes someone just the way they are.

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