November 3, 2017 Ben Folds Thrilling At 20 Monroe Live Grand Rapids, MI 10-29-17
North Carolina native Ben Folds has been cited as one of the major musical influencers of this generation. A veteran on the music scene, Folds first found recognition as the frontman of his euphemistically named three-piece band, Ben Folds Five in the mid-1990s. Then, in 2000, after the breakup of the Five, Folds embarked on a solo career, and has spent the last two decades making records, collaborating, as well as producing some of Pop music’s most respected acts. Also touring, sometimes on his own and sometimes backed by symphony orchestras, more recently, Folds was named the first-ever artistic adviser for the United States’ National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. for a three-season term beginning with their 2017-18 season. His surprising selection as the adviser to the National Symphony Orchestra promises to increase the notoriety of his already renowned career.
Furthermore, in June of this year, Folds announced his Paper Airplane Request Tour, which launched on July 21st and continues into early 2018. The premise of the tour is simple; the first half of the set is a traditional show with a fixed set list, followed by a brief intermission. During the intermission, the crowd is instructed to craft paper airplanes inscribed with their desired song. Then, at a choreographed moment, the crowd tosses the airplanes on stage, Folds picks up a plane, plays the requested song and then he selects another from the pile. Thus, the second half of the show is unscripted and changes somewhat from show to show. In theory, the airplanes are an inspired choice, and in practice, they still seem brilliant, but Folds may have forgotten to consider that very few people continue to construct paper airplanes in adulthood. Nonetheless, the compelling show made its way to 20 Monroe Live in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Sunday, October 29, 2017.
The tailend of the 2017 run of the tour, which will conclude November 12th down in Miami, Florida before picking up again after the holiday season, fans were elate for a chance to see Folds and his unmistakable concert experience. As for the Paper Airplane Request Tour, though the planes from the first five or six rows of the audience made it to the stage of the new, state-of-the-art venue in the Grand Rapids area, many more ended up on the floor of the venue. Overall, though possibly not as successful as it would have been if the show had been attended by elementary-aged boys, the airplanes were a novel idea and contributed to the fun of the show.
Folds, wearing a miraculous giraffe-patterned shirt, opened his set with “Phone in a Pool” from his most recent album, So There, released in 2015. Known for his onstage banter with the crowd, Folds did not disappoint. When introducing the song “Bastard,” from 2005’s Songs for Silverman, Folds remarked that the crowd was so polite that they reminded him of an Amway convention with a wink and nod to the Multi-Level Marketing association founded and based in the area.
Other highlights of Folds’ crowd interaction were a story, quickly retracted, about drawing graffiti dicks on the walls backstage at Carnegie Hall, an anecdote about an assailant pulling a knife on him backstage at a show in 1997, since “being on MTV brings out more crazy people,” and a language warning for parents who had brought their children to the show that “the mean piano playing man will be done in a bit.” That said, Folds had the crowd in stitches on multiple occasions throughout his performance, leading one to wonder that if he had failed as a musician whether he might have made a career as a standup comic in the deadpan style of Steven Wright or Demetri Martin.
Fortunately, such speculation is unnecessary, since Folds’ performance left no question of his musical mastery. Folds captivated the audience, and his grand piano was near all the accompaniment he needed to rock the house for a solid two-hour set. The first half of the show closed with a rousing rendition of fan favorite “Steven’s Last Night in Town” from the breakout 2007 album Whatever and Ever, Amen, followed by a surprise drum solo. Folds finished the song and as he was walking off stage, his crew rushed in and set up a drum kit which Folds hammered away on for several minutes.
As promised, after a short break and an explanation of the process, the fun with paper airplanes ensued. Once the crowd had finished hurling their paper projectiles toward the stage, Folds came out and proceeded to play requests. He opened with “Army” from 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. There was significantly less banter from the stage during the request portion of the show, with the exception of one audience member’s repeated, very loud, request for the song “Cigarette” from Whatever, to which Folds quipped that the purpose of the paper airplanes was to keep the audience from shouting over each other.
From there, Folds went on to explain that the lyrics for “Cigarette” had been extracted from the longest, most painful run-on sentence he had ever seen in a newspaper. He jibed, “I waited until the statute of limitations ran out before admitting that I didn’t write the lyrics for that one.” Folds also played a number of fan-favorite songs during the second set, including “The Luckiest,” “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” “Kate,” “Brick,” and closed the show with “Song for the Dumped.” After a brief pause, Folds came back on stage and performed an encore of “Zak and Sarah,” from his 2001 debut solo album Rockin’ the Suburbs, and that was all she wrote. The crowd filed out into the brisk, autumn night, wishing for more, but glowing with wonderful memories courtesy of Mr. Folds.
While the US leg of the Paper Airplane Request Tour concludes soon, an Australian/New Zealand leg will begin in January and February of 2018. As for the stop in Grand Rapids, it was an event fans will soon not forget and justifies why Folds is one of the most beloved singer-songwriter performances of the last 20 years.