Mesa, AZ — In the moments before the start of Ben Folds’ performance at the Mesa Arts Center with support from Tall Heights, the line for the merch table stretched back through Ikeda Theatre’s lobby and out the door. As the audience poured in for the evening’s show, so many eras of Ben Folds’ career was present across t-shirts, some clearly dating back the 28 years of his career (one attendee was sporting an early Ben Folds Five t-shirt that was surely coveted by many of the long-time fans). Special shoutout to the Ben Folds glasses-cleaning set, the most audience-specific piece of merch sold, this side of Taylor Swift friendship bracelets and Cypress Hill rolling papers. Throughout the entryway, die-hard fans shared memories of their favorite Ben Folds show, detailing their favorite moments.
Boston’s Tall Heights pulled double duty, serving as both the opener for Folds and also as a part of his backing band. The two-piece group, consisting of guitarist Tim Harrington and cellist Paul Wright, has been building a steady following since their 2009 debut album on the strength of their gorgeous melodies and the duo’s lush harmonies. They opened their set with “Back to Autumn” and “Murmuring State” before introducing themselves to the crowd and making note of the delicious empanadas they’d eaten that day – presumably at downtown Mesa’s gem Republica Empanada less than half a mile away from the venue.
The duo covered Blink-182’s “Dammit” – a captivatingly ethereal rendition that surprised, amused, and delighted the audience. They released their reimagined version of this song in 2022. After playing “Only,” the duo talked about getting to tour with Folds and how they were recruited by him to play on his latest album, which in turn inspired them to get to work on their own new album.
They then debuted a brand-new song “Still Feel the Same,” so new in fact that they had the lyrics printed and out on stage with them. When the crowd immediately embraced the song and gave it a long round of applause after, Harrington laughed and said “you are so sweet. I was shitting my pants the whole time, and it was not because of the empanadas!”
After a haunting rendition of their “Spirit Cold,” Harrington implored the crowd, since “Still Feel the Same” was so new, “If you took a video of the song, don’t post it on social media, and you already have… you know what? Fuck it. We’re not famous enough for anyone to care if something gets leaked early.” They closed their set with a completely unplugged, standing performance of “To Be Young.”
For being such an incredibly dynamic performer, Folds is so humble and gracious in between. Even his arrival on stage came with a brief pause at the front of the stage for a quick smile and nod before he went to his piano, and opened his show with “Exhausting Lover,” “Winslow Gardens,” and “Clouds With Ellipses” from his new record What Matters Most (his set would feature eight of the album’s ten songs), all of which sounded great. The new album is a must for those who don’t already have it.
After “Losing Lisa” off of Rockin’ the Suburbs, Folds shared with the crowd that during the pandemic he had an online song-writing course he taught and that one assignment involved students in the class using headlines to inspire songs. He himself got two songs out of it: “Fragile” (inspired by a story of a would-be burglar who was caught by the family, started to cry, and then gave them $200 before quickly leaving their home) and “Kristine from the Seventh Grade” (drawn from an article by a woman explaining why she wouldn’t remove her shoes in homes that ask you to remove shoes). “This is funny,” he added before starting the song, “but I put it in a minor key.” Indeed, it was amusing, eliciting laughter throughout, as it told the tale of a former school friend. She had given herself over to online conspiracy theories and near-constant anger at the world.
One of the reasons why Ben Folds’ fans are so loyal is in part because of his incredible song writing. While his songs can be many things: funny and sad, uplifting and sorrowful, heartwarming and heartbreaking, they are all deeply rooted in an unmistakable humanity. Though we may at times laugh at his protagonists, be they him, a surrogate, or a character he’s created, it is in response to something we can all connect to and understand.
“Still Fighting It,” a song written about his son Louis, has been a live-show staple for years and always a highlight. I mean, who of any age can’t relate to the line: “Everybody knows it sucks to grow up”? “What Matters Most,” the title track from the new album, and “Landed” both deal with missing friends, whether from death or confusing estrangement. These songs were performed back-to-back, making for a poignant one-two punch.
“If you know Regina’s parts, go ahead and sing along,” prompted Folds before playing “You Don’t Know Me,” his duet with Regina Spektor from Way To Normal. The audience took Folds’ cue and responded majestically. One of the hallmarks of any Ben Folds show is audience participation. For a time after the release of Rockin’ the Suburbs, his first album away from Ben Folds Five, he embarked on a solo tour that featured only him and a piano each night. He made the audience a part of the show, directing them to add harmonies or, in the case of “Army,” stand in for the trumpet and trombone parts.
As Folds and the band arrived at the first instance of Spektor’s vocals, it clearly surprised and delighted Folds to hear her parts sung so loudly and enthusiastically from all corners of the Mesa Arts Center, even briefly stopping the song at one point to express how much it pleased him. “How cool is that?!” he marveled. Following a spirited run through of Way To Normal’s “Effington,” Folds ran the audience through a quick three-part harmony rehearsal to accompany the performance of “Not the Same” — Folds’ ballad of a high school friend who dropped acid at a party and climbed up into a tree where he stayed all night before climbing down the next morning and promptly becoming a born-again Christian. Throughout the song, Folds stood, playing many of the parts one-handed so he could keep his right hand free to direct the audience through the harmonies. For a song that is somewhat somber in tone, it managed to be one of the evening’s highlights, especially as a scan of the audience revealed universal expressions of glee.
As Folds began to set up “Moments,” the final track on the new album and what would be the pre-encore closer, an audience member called out “Rock This Bitch,” Folds’ long-running live show staple improvised song. Folds obliged the request, playing an Arizona-specific version of the song and once more assigning the audience vocal parts. Folds came back out and performed “Annie Waits” solo (eventually joined by Tall Heights, who added some of their incredible harmonies at the tailend of the song). They followed with full-band runs through “Still” and “Zak and Sara”.
“Moments” was the evening’s pinnacle. It was, after all, a night about living in the moment, being present for life. As the lyrics go “We try to hold these moments as they glow/We’ll breathe them in and then we’ll let them go.”
Ultimately, it is these moments — shared moments with strangers — that are what matter most (yeah, that’s right, I worked in TWO references to Folds’ stellar new album in one sentence). There is something so real, so uplifting, and ultimately something so life affirming about a Ben Folds concert that it should never be missed. Despite arriving as strangers and departing as strangers, a Ben Folds audience in between is a community drawn into the experience, singing along to every word, providing harmonies, laughing, crying, and being present. We held in the moments like one of life’s most precious breaths before letting it go into the night, a community forever but strangers once more.
Photographer: Katherine Amy Vega
View Separately: Ben Folds | Tall Heights
Ben Folds & Tall Heights – Mesa Arts Center 8-15-23
Photography © Katherine Amy Vega, Kataklizmic Design
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