There has always been mutual admiration and respect between Ben Folds and his fans and the piano man got the rock star treatment in...

There has always been mutual admiration and respect between Ben Folds and his fans and the piano man got the rock star treatment in Tulsa at Cain’s Ballroom on Monday night.

From the moment Folds stepped on stage at the venerable venue at a stop on his “Paper Airplanes Tour,” and before he’d played a note on his Yamaha grand piano, the Cain’s crowd showered him with a solid round of applause, with the musician taking a moment to give the praise right back to his audience.

Folds, a veteran singer-songwriter and former frontman of alternative rock outfit Ben Folds Five, tours alone now — just himself and his piano — but the audience is just as much a part of the show as he is. The crowd got involved early on Monday.

From the opening pair of numbers, “Phone in a Pool” and “Annie Waits,” the crowd — consisting mostly of men and women whose coming of age came when Ben Folds Five was gaining radio prominence in the ’90s — sang along to each word, even taking extra initiative to add in vocal drum fills or other accompaniments. That impressed the singer so much he got out front and began conducting and quartering up the audience in an effort to create a four-part vocal harmony for the tune “Bastard.” The experiment was generally positive, with the majority of those in attendance able to follow Folds’ instructions to accomplish the desired result.

Although this has become a customary procedure since Folds began performing solo in 2001, the performer always seems gleeful when the experiment is successful. He joked that he knew the evening was going to be a good one when the audience shows excitement with getting in on the act.

Though the crowd’s official assignment was complete, it didn’t let up for the rest of the evening, which seemed to energize Folds in even the more somber or delicate numbers. A full-on singalong followed “Bastard” when Folds began playing the opening stanza of 2002’s “Still Fighting It,” a tender tune about the pain of adolescence, that he wrote for his son Louis.

Folds’ solo performances allow him to connect with his audience by exposing his vulnerability and his sense of humor. Toward the end of the first set, Folds introduced a song titled “Not a Fan” that he said was inspired by an imposing, “knife-welding, prison tatted non-fan” with whom he ran into backstage when touring with his former band. Folds said he was approached by the man who claimed his girlfriend was a “huge fan, but I don’t get it.” Folds said the man wanted him to explain the meaning behind the band’s most popular tune, “Brick,” a song about teenage abortion, but Folds said he preferred to let the song speak for itself. He said the man left demurred on Folds’ talent, but he turned it into a positive moment.

Folds concluded the first set with a lively version of the Ben Folds Five hit “Steven’s Last Night in Town.” This included Folds running from his piano to sit on a drum throne to play a solo on a drum kit his crew assembled while he played.

Following a brief intermission, Folds opened the floor to requests, asking audience members to write their requests on paper airplanes and toss them onstage. Armed with an arsenal fan favorites and deep cuts, Folds went to work.

He began the second half by granting a pair of wacky requests — one which asked him to compose a song about watermelons on the spot (he obliged, but turns out his mom is allergic to watermelons) and the other asking him to play “any Steely Dan song.” He said his command of other artists’ catalogs wasn’t great, but he navigated his way through “Barrytown.”

Folds then turned his attention to another request and arguably the best composition in his catalog, “Army.” Folds enthusiastically pounded out the bouncing opening stanza with the audience providing loud, expert vocal assistance on the song’s “Ba Da Bah! Ba Da Bah Bah!” refrain.

The encore also consisted of the tender ballad “The Luckiest,” and a rousing version of “Zak and Sara.” Folds rounded out the evening with “Gracie,” a song written for his daughter that he says he rarely plays, but did so on Monday because a young fan who shares the name of the tune had requested it that evening. He joked to the girl’s parents when introducing the song that they were in luck because “no one has requested Dr. Dre tonight,” a nod to his naughty cover of the rapper’s tune “B****es Ain’t Sh**.” He ended the night with the 1997 hit “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.”

The night’s opener was Boston-based electrofolk trio Tall Heights. The group is most known for their song “Spirit Cold” and play a reserved and relax style reminiscent of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. Touring in support of their latest effort, 2016’s “Neptune,” the band was well received by the Tulsa faithful, with fans even applauding the band as the broke down their set following its performance. 

Ben Folds setlist

  1. Phone in a Pool
  2. Annie Waits
  3. Bastard (With audience four-part harmonies)
  4. Still Fighting It
  5. So There
  6. Landed
  7. Not a Fan
  8. Capable of Anything
  9. Steven’s Last Night in Town (Ben Folds Five song)
    Encore Break/Paper airplane requests begin
  10. Made up song on spot about watermelons
  11. Barrytown (partial) (Steely Dan song)
  12. Army (Ben Folds Five song)
  13. Draw a Crowd (Ben Folds Five song)
  14. The Luckiest
  15. The Ascent of Stan
  16. Gone
  17. Alice Childress (Ben Folds Five song)
  18. Evaporated (Ben Folds Five song)
  19. Zak and Sara
  20. Hava Nagila (traditional)
  21. Gracie
  22. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces

 

Justin Bates

Justin co-founded FayetteSound in 2016 and ShindigMusic! in the summer of 2017. He is a Pearl Jam enthusiast and avid collector of music from all genres in all formats, with a particular preference for vinyl. He's the spouse of artist Stacy, of Stacy Bee Art fame.