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Sunday September 26th

Folds Returns Home, Opens Tour With 2-Day Show

On the first of two shows, the wry lyricist showcased his new band mates during a brief but high-energy set.

Ben Folds
Cat's Cradle
Friday, Sept. 7
4 Stars

A sold-out crowd filtered into Cat's Cradle. Some wore Ben Folds Five T-shirts, others clutched posters. All have the same question in their heads: Will it be our Ben who makes his solo debut tonight? Has his music changed? Has he grown up?

A baby grand piano was pulled into the center of the stage, putting most doubts to bed. When Folds entered, he walked quickly across the stage, flashed the crowd the "love you" sign and said simply, "Thank you."

He went straight to the piano keys and launched into "Not the Same," an emotive, up-tempo ballad from his new album. He sang with his crystalline, plaintive voice and pounded at the piano keys adeptly. The crowd roars: their Ben is back.

Folds and his new band -- a drummer, a bassist, and a guitarist/keyboardist -- swept through three more new songs before pausing. The verdict was that Folds hadn't changed all that much: the songs were upbeat and funny, stories about a goofy couple and troubled people, all with great melodies. The biggest change was the addition of a guitar into the mix -- a Ben Folds Five no-no.

As if acknowledging the audience's possible apprehension toward the new musicians, Folds frequently turned the spotlight to his band. On several occasions he'd step back from his piano and nod along to his new guitarist's solos. Even the bass player and the drummer were given energetic fills to sink their teeth into. It all felt very new, but very familiar.

His entire set was made up of only new songs -- in fact, he played nine of the 12 songs on his excellent new album, Rockin' the Suburbs.

They all sound like classic Ben Folds Five, and a few people in the audience were starting to pick up on the choruses, but what everyone really wanted were their favorite old songs.

It was a palpable desire, thick in the smoky air of the club where Folds made a name for himself almost a decade ago.

As the show went on, Folds began to chat more and more with the crowd, and the banter helped ease the transition to the new material. Someone called out a request, to which Folds responded, "That is the first time anyone asked for an old song," and the crowd cheered.

"At the end of the set I'll come out and play some shit," Folds assured. "`Freebird' and all that shit."

At the end of his set he went to the front of the stage, strapping on a keyboard-guitar and pulling an audience member's red baseball cap backwards onto his head.

He launched full force into "Rockin' the Suburbs," his new witty single mocking Fred Durst and his rap-rock company. The energy finally exploded in the room as Folds thrust his fist and slapped at his keyboard.

By the time he re-emerged for a four-song encore of old material, Folds had finally grown comfortable on the stage again, and the crowd sang along the whole time.

Feeding off the energy, Folds stood up and conducted a sing-along during the finale, "Song for the Dumped." With a "Thank you very much, God bless America," he was gone.

Despite the high energy and much cursing, it seemed that maybe Folds had grown up -- playing for about 75 minutes, he was off the stage by midnight.

But they love him just as much. A crowd of people waited patiently by the stage long after the show ended and everyone else was gone.

One of them turned to a friend and asked, "Do you think he'll come back out?"

By Brian Millikin

Folds Tones Down Usual Stage Antics To Focus on New Material at Show

Ben Folds
Cat's Cradle
Saturday, Sept. 8
3 Stars

"It's good to be back at here in Chapel Hill," "Man it's been too long since I've been back here," and "There's no place like Cat's Cradle" -- all things Ben Folds did not say at Saturday night's concert that marked part two of Folds' anticipated return from down under.

But the crowd -- made up mostly of polo-shirt-and-tube-top-wearing UNC grads (after having had to sit through the karaoke torture of opening act Citizen "I can't give my album away" Cope) -- weren't the most welcoming crowd, either.

No doubt those fans expecting a Ben Folds Five show got exactly one third of what they were hoping for. Fans excited about the new Folds material were treated to an energetic performance of pop gems whose main departure from Folds' old material is the addition of an electric guitar to the mix.

Folds decided not to dip too far into his bag of stage antics -- smashing his piano stool on the keyboard and singing heavy metal songs on top of his baby grand -- instead opting to let his new music speak for itself.

"Everybody knows it sucks to grow up/everybody knows it's weird to be back here," he sang, clearly conveying his awkwardness.

While many of the faster songs he played with his new band merely invoked longing for the good old days of Ben Folds Five, the new slower ballads that focused on Folds' patented harmony-driven melodies charmed the crowd with ease.

It was the rest of Folds' band -- for the most part look-and-sound-alikes of his former bandmates -- that never quite caught on with me.

Folds didn't even seem very comfortable with the new crew at first, but as the show went on the jet-lagged Folds started enjoying himself more.

As the show came to a conclusion, I was curious as to whether Folds would indulge the crowd's requests for classics or try to protect the sanctity of his old band and refuse.

He came back onto stage for an encore, only now he was bandless.

Without an introduction, he sang "I feel like a quote out of context," sending the crowd into a frenzy. In addition to "Best Imitation of Myself," Folds honored a request for "The Last Polka" and even sang the song's drum solo. The guilt of the pleasure I got from this encore was offset by the fact that Folds hadn't enlisted his new bands' help on these hits.

But he wasn't done yet. The band came up and played two more classics with him. But as soon as Folds stroked his hand across the back wiring of his piano for the opening notes of the spine-tingling "Smoke," I temporarily forgot Ben was sans Five. To make sure the crowd left happy, Folds closed with "Song For the Dumped."

Yes, Ben, it's weird to have you back here. But in a good way.

And luckily for Saturday night's crowd, you do, in fact, do a great imitation of yourself.

By Jason Arthurs

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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