Ben Folds goes delightfully solo at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre

Ben Folds with Tall Heights at the Vogue Theatre, 9/30/17 

Ben Folds
Photo by Mary Matheson

Southern piano man Ben Folds ended the second leg of his Paper Airplane Request Tour with a spectacular solo show at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre on Saturday (Sept. 30).

Boston duo Tall Heights started the night with their wistful brand of electro-folk. Tim Harrington (vocals and guitar), and Paul Wright (vocals and cello), with Paul Dumas on percussion warmed the crowd up with their contemplative tunes and immaculate harmonies. It was the perfect autumn soundtrack.

Inspired by the historic Vogue Theatre, Dumas left the stage as Harrington and Wright treated the crowd to an unplugged cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”. The chatter of the crowd in the lobby buzzed underneath Tall Heights’ bright, clear vocals and the fullness of the cello. It was a beautiful moment. Before concluding with “Spirit Cold”, Tall Heights introduced Ben Folds by thanking him for bringing them along and answered the question on everyone’s minds: “yes, he’s as cool as you think he is”.

They were right. With a career spanning over two decades, Ben Folds has many stories to tell. His wry humour not only makes his songs accessible but also makes for an incredibly entertaining show.

Making his entrance to the tongue-in-cheek soundtrack of Harry Nillson’s “One”, the fun was just beginning. Wearing jeans and a blazer over a polka dot shirt, Folds emerged looking like a rumpled intellectual and took his place at the piano. Formerly the frontman of the Ben Folds Five trio, this show is just Ben, his piano, and his musical prowess.

What’s so refreshing is that despite his storied career — he has collaborated with Sara Bareilles, Regina Spektor, William Shatner and is now the Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Centre — he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Ben Folds at The Vogue - 09-30-2017 - Mary Matheson Photography - 5
Photo by Mary Matheson

Ben Folds might be one of those increasingly rare musicians who are best appreciated live. Opening the show with the playfully bouncy “Phone in a Pool” from his latest album, So There (2015), Folds performed a setlist that mixed older hits “Annie Waits”, and “Landed” with newer songs “Not a Fan”, and “Capable of Anything”.

It was a full house, but Folds created an intimate experience, asking fans to help him out with four part harmony on “Bastard”. Folds conducted the crowd through all four (increasingly complex) parts as things went sideways and devolved into laughter. Folds responded “that sounds good. That’s just a rehearsal, we’ll nail it at the show”. Sharing the stories behind the songs, Folds’ self-deprecating, honest recollections felt like a friend confiding over drinks.

By the time Folds cast the audience in Regina Spektor’s part in their 2008 collaboration, “You Don’t Know Me”, everyone was having fun. “I can’t really afford to bring Regina Spector on all my shows”, he joked. Folds’ showmanship was on par as he hammed it up onstage, combining jazz, classical and pop piano in the last song of the first set “Last Night in Town” ending with an impressive drum solo when a team of roadies ran a drum kit onstage piece by piece.

Before taking a short break, Folds explained the second set. The audience would write the songs they wanted to hear on pieces of paper, fold them into airplanes to be launched onstage after a 10-second countdown. “You guys write the set and not me, I just pick ‘em off the stage and play them”. The audience’s picks included “Rockin’ the Suburbs” and a cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” that seemed bland after Folds’ own compositions.

Folds’ trademark tenor voice was hoarse in places but he owned it, giving emotive performances on his hits and lesser-known songs. No matter how old the song, Folds sang it with meaning, as though it were a new experience for him, and the audience couldn’t help but join in. “It’s good to be back here. I’m surprised anybody showed up”. The crowd of harmonizing, clapping, leg-drumming fans suggests that Ben Folds needn’t worry. Vancouver is definitely a fan.