WASHINGTON, D.C.—WHEN BEN Folds and Aussie songbird Missy Higgins recently made their way to D.C, I wasn’t supposed to be at the show, much less to be sitting six rows back from the stage, dead center. Brilliant concert-going luck had favored me this evening because, in a rare turn of fate, I ended up screwing over the screwers: greedy ticket brokers, who had bought up hundreds of tickets expecting a huge demand, were eventually forced to sell the tickets that morning for under face value.

Thank you, Craigslist.

It was the first night of Folds’ “Primal Scream” tour, celebrating the upcoming release of his new album Way to Normal, but the cavernous confines of Constitution Hall were sparsely filled when the lights went down and Higgins took the stage. With a shy grace that seemed genuine rather than put-on, magnetic melodies grabbing every ear, and clear, sweet voice that floated to the fog-filled rafters of the room, Higgins took control of the stage in a way like few openers.

With her saucy Australian accent slipping into fragile love ballads like “The Wrong Girl,” or the wry sense of humor on “Peachy,” Higgins makes beautiful pop music that’s not long for the opening slot. Lyrically, the young singer still has room for maturity as, “I am weeping warm honey and milk,” sounds more like bad MySpace poetry than the musings of a twenty-something wrestling with the challenges of love. But even a proclivity towards melodrama didn’t dampen the brilliance of “Where I Stood” and “Special Two” from surfacing. Watch for Missy Higgins to explode in the United States.

Then it was time for the main attraction.

Benjamin Scott Folds makes music that defies classification. Whatever musical incarnation you might find him in (Ben Folds Five, solo tour, grand vision with the Australian Symphony Orchestra), the man cannot seem to take himself seriously. If you take your eyes off this realization for one split second, you just might take Folds for something that he’s not—and you might walk out confused and frustrated.

Three times I’ve walked into the presence of Folds and three times I’ve gotten very different shows. The first was a gig opening for Weezer that found Folds and company stealing the show from the legendary wooden rockers with a rollicking driving performance of classic Folds piano rock and crowd sing-alongs “Not the Same,” “Bitches
Ain’t S—” and the screaming closing of “Rocking the Suburbs.” The second was a dose of restrained and mishandled mixing of Folds with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that left the audience with a nostalgic musical trip but the feeling that it could have been something so much more.

This evening in D.C. was something that honestly left me wondering what I had just witnessed. Folds started the show heavy on material from his new album, and then just didn’t let it up. It’s impossible to even explain the set-list without explaining the fact that to give fans something to chew on, and combat music piracy, Folds recorded and released alternate takes of every song on the album and then leaked them to the net. So, instead of just playing the new album, Folds went through every track on the new album, and every track on the fake version of the new album.

The visual displays projected behind Folds did little to illustrate the fast moving tempo of forgettable “Brainwascht” and “Brainwashed” (played back-to-back), and, as the set continued, did little more than distract the audience from the music. The new album needs a mixture of forgetfulness as songs like the inane “Errant Dog” are matched by the beautiful Folds standard “Cologne.” It was the loudest that Folds has sounded, due to the addition of two new members, tambourines, synthesizers and percussion to the mix.

Even if you record the most brilliant album in history, it’s difficult for an audience appreciate that in the first sitting. Folds’ efforts to prevent piracy made this the absolute first time to hear these songs coming from the stage for the majority of fans. Ideally, that’s a rare treat, to have your first listen be live, but practically, taking in a rock show full of foreign material is always a little brain-beating.

Fold closed the first set with “Bitches Went Nutz,” a “fake” song about a psycopathic, coke-snorting party date. The stage went dark and when it came back up, it was stripped back down to three pieces: Folds, a drummer and a bassist. They sprinted through an old-school piano set featuring “Landed,” “Losing Lisa” and a rendition of “Philosophy” that featured Folds with one of his signature solos stretching the span of the keyboard.

But just when the crowd was getting settled into the “Ben Folds we know,” huge smiley faces appeared on the screen and Folds went into a closing song that was two part spoken word lecture on the value of smiling and one part singing sardonic dismissal of the modern motivational movement. And it was over.

If other bands suffer from unwillingness to move away from the past, Folds, and apparently the majority of his fans, have no problems with moving on. You were denied a trip through musical nostalgia and brilliance, but instead allowed a peek inside the brain of a man who has maintained his independence and indifference to the hipster music scene. You may not buy his new vision and it may sound a little hollow, but he’ll keep putting it out there with the same cheeky disregard that has allowed him to maintain relevance despite the years. He just doesn’t care.

Nathan Martin is a Patrol’s Washington, D.C. music editor and an intern for the Washington Post Express.

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Nathan Martin

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