Tempe, Ariz. — Even before a band took the stage there was a sense of friendship and camaraderie sweeping the room at the Marquee Theatre that Friday, September 22. Ben Folds’ Paper Airplane tour had come to town, and the audience smiled and laughed as they waited excitedly for the show to start.
Tim Harrington and Paul Wright of the duo Tall Heights sauntered on stage, carrying their instruments: a guitar and a cello. The electrofolk group from Boston serenaded with haunting harmonies that lulled back and forth as an ocean’s tide, pulling the audience in and releasing them once again. Their emotive lyrics of songs like “Spirit Cold” and “Iron in the Fire” weighed on hearts and the duo used creative sounds like cell phone feedback to accompany the song “Cross my Mind”. The spell was eventually broken as their set came to an end, signalling to the crowd to usher forward for the main event, Ben Folds.
After holding the audience in eager anticipation Ben Folds entered the stage and seated himself at the piano, gave a short wave and sheepish grin to the crowd, then immediately slammed fingers to keys, playing “Annie Waits”. Arms slipped over shoulders and the audience sang along. It was as though everyone was invited to an intimate house party, every song a precious memory as it poured over the audience, friendly reminders of days now past.
Ben Folds warmly shared stories, talking about his father as a construction worker and being cornered by his Uncle Walter who talked about what he would do if he were president. Occasionally Ben Folds would stop singing and just listen to the audience sing instead. He stood and happily conducted the crowd in a five part harmony singing “Not the Same”. Tall Heights came back to the stage joining Ben Folds to sing “Still Fighting It”.
For the grand finale of the first half of his set he started playing a drum while walking across the stage and continued playing an amazing drum solo as they set up the remaining set around him. The stunned audience continued to watch intently, impressed into silence broken intermittently by hoots and screams. When it was over, a brief intermission began, but there was a catch.
The audience was instructed to go into the lobby and get a piece of paper. Write a request on it and fold it into a paper airplane to be sailed across the Marquee landing gently on the stage, where Ben Folds would take it and play what was written on it. People rushed to get their paper and pushed their way close to the stage, hoping that their paper would make it, and more importantly, that their paper would be chosen. It was none other than Arizona’s own Alice Cooper who came on to the stage, swinging red lights and wearing his signature black hat, who initiated the count down. The crowd chanted “10, 9, 8…” and at 0 the entire audience sailed airplanes towards the stage. The planes that didn’t make it were picked up by strangers and thrown again, everyone helping to get all the paper planes to the stage.
Ben Folds did explain he might not be able to sing every song, or occasionally a song wasn’t even written on the paper, making it impossible to play. However, the highlight of the second half of the set was when just that happened. He started to play a song that no one recognized, and went on to completely ad-lib a song based off what was written on the airplane, which was “Rock this B***h, Omaha Symphony 2017.” In the song Ben Folds told a story about how he acquired his favorite piano, his Frank LLoyd Wright piano for only $8000, singing that the guy who sold it “thought that was a lot.” The audience laughed over and over at the witty story set to music, all in the guise of a request written on an airplane.
Songs kept coming and wrists flung in the air to the beat of “Kate” while bodies moved back and forth to the sweet piano chords. Abruptly, Ben stood and bowed the audience, thanking them for coming out and left the stage. The audience continued to cheer and scream, knowing an encore had to be in store. In a few minutes he returned and played “Zak and Sara” for a rejoicing audience.
Then it really was over, the house lights came on and the crowd started to head to the doors. Their faces full of smiles, holding the hands of loved ones and already reminiscing about their favorite part of the concert. It was as though they were leaving a friend’s party who had come to town unexpectedly, hyped up and already awaiting the next chance they get to see each other. The next time Ben Folds comes to town, they’ll be ready.
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