in performance: ben folds/tall heights

Ben Folds.

Try this for a novel Halloween encounter. Imagine being at the Opera House around 10:15 last night when a stagehand in a skeleton costume led the audience in a countdown that culminated in a battalion of paper airplanes showering the stage.

Much like the entirety of Ben Folds’ immensely entertaining performance, the resulting effect wasn’t really in keeping with the standard creepiness of the day. Instead, it represented the zenith of a concert that prided itself on audience involvement.

For two hour-long sets, Folds dug into expertly crafted tunes from throughout his career while accompanying himself with piano rolls that reflected, at various intervals, classical mischief, Southern-flavored barrelhouse bravado and, above all, richly versed pop lyricism. But all of that was a collective backdrop for an astonishing artist-audience rapport that was established almost from the instant Folds began the evening with the unassuming pop sway of the title tune to his 2015 album, “So There.”

For the remainder of the first set, Folds fleshed out songs with a piano vocabulary often built around ham fisted slams with his left hand that recalled more than once the very early records of Elton John. In some instances, the songs were allowed to stand on their own, as in the tale of a teen banished to the company of his intoxicated elders in “Uncle Walter.” In others, Folds served as conductor, briefly teaching multiple harmony parts for the audience to sing alongside him, as in the deceptively animated “Bastard.” Then there were the songs the audience knew so well they added remarkably complete backing vocals and responses without being prompted, as on “Landed.” Through it all, Folds proved a merry headmaster whose tireless performance profile was part vaudeville cheerleader and part indie rock upstart.

The curious mix of the two guises hit a crescendo with the set-closing “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” where Folds left the piano to play a drum solo on a kit that was quickly assembled around him by stagehands as he played.

The second set was where the paper airplanes came in. Each one that landed onstage contained a song request from an audience member, an extension of the set’s purposeful spontaneity. Folds didn’t have to stretch much, though, as none of the picks were particularly obscure. But the resulting repertoire presented an even greater sense of dynamics and stylistic breadth than the first set.

The choices ranged from the fragile love song “Luckiest” (one of six tunes performed during both sets from Folds’ 2001 album “Rockin’ the Suburbs”) to the percussive piano romp “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” that leaned heavily on rock ‘n’ roll basics. There was also a tune Folds made up on the spot about attending a horse sale in Lexington with William Shatner that used an unintelligible audience remark shouted from the Opera House balcony as a chorus.

The Boston trio Tall Heights opened the evening (and returned to sing with Folds on the lovely “Still Fighting It”) with a distinctive pop blend built around cello, acoustic guitar, drums and considerable humor. The members also displayed an original sense of Halloween spirit. All three dressed up as Folds for the evening.



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