Ben Folds, Still Fighting His "Piano Man" Side

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For more pictures from Ben and Kate, see our slideshow here. It's been awhile since Aftermath came out of a show so ambivalent, so very "eh" that we almost feel bad about even attempting to review it. It didn't offend us in any way, nor did it blow any wind up our ripped jorts. It just was. It was a live musical performance - nothing more, nothing less. Ben Folds isn't a boring songwriter nor a boring human being, but Jesus Christ if his live show isn't just like walking into an Ambien tablet while drinking a glass of whole milk right after working 15 straight hours in a coal mine. Opener Kate Miller-Heidke (right) was almost too dear for the crowd, but she won them over once they got over her vocal histrionics. The Australian native dabbles in what laymen might describe as "pop-opera." We started to feel a twinge of empathy for Miller-Heidke when she opened up her mouth to sing around the collegiate-looking sold-out crowd. She wrenches really endearing lines out of her voice, and we were happy she won everyone over by the end of the set. Or maybe that was relief. Folds, meanwhile, very much has a dueling-piano vibe during his live shows. We never quite got into the "Piano Man"-lite scene that you can find at a Midtown haunt like Howl at the Moon, which probably stunts our appreciation of him in a live, solo setting. Folds' tales about bitchy broads and drunken scenes work well on record, but live, they grow into nerd posturing, using pop-culture buzzwords to reel in ears that only want to hear what they want to hear. What, he just said "bitch" and "nuts"? Hardy-har - Aftermath is not sold. But when Folds turns on his Randy Newman switch and tells stories about real people in ponderous predicaments, dropping the College Humor sitcom-style vignettes, he becomes an artist you can patronize with total glee. Songs like "Annie Waits" and "You Don't Know Me" (aided by Miller-Heidke) are slices of shattered humanity. "Still Fighting It" flies into a place in your brain you didn't know existed. Saturday night, the song hit us hard, and we don't quite understand why even two days later. Folds' songs stick to your ribs, but in a live setting with other people listening you lose that intimacy. For us, he works best inside headphones, because he's telling us things that good friends tell each other on the phone or from one seat over at a bar. With 1,000 others in the room, though, you feel cheated out of some of that honesty.

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