WALTHAM — "You should be able to perform any song with just a piano and your voice. You don’t need all the other shit."
Or so declared Ben Folds during his Nov. 5 show at Brandeis University’s Shapiro Gymnasium. As it turned out, Folds and his piano were all he needed to prove himself right.
For nearly two hours, the T-shirt-clad Folds belted almost all his classics, along with a couple of newer songs, to the delight of a sing-along crowd comprised mostly of college students. Folds uses every key of his instrument with the fervor and intricacy of a concert pianist, resulting in a fullness of sound that more than did justice to his many multi-instrument studio recordings. Folds once again showed why he singlehandedly made the piano cool again in rock music.
That is, when he wasn’t breaking the Steinway on which he played.
Folds’ merciless pounding ultimately proved to be too much for the Brandeis-owned baby grand. After a low D went dead mid-way through the show, Folds caused what he admitted was a first: a black key completely broke off, which the bespectacled rocker held up to the amusement of everyone in attendance. But the show went on without even the slightest hiccup, displaying the showmanship Folds has become well known for in his live performances.
The Brandeis appearance — which was his second show on the Waltham university’s basketball court — almost didn’t happen. Folds told the audience that he turned down the gig twice before receiving a letter "from a very nice young lady" begging him to come to Brandeis. An attempt at covering a song written by friend and former bandmate nicknamed Sn¼zz proved to be one of the show’s sweeter moments, with Folds teaching the crowd the song’s refrain and then asking someone with a video camera to record the tribute and post it on YouTube for his friend.
Part of Folds’ appeal — besides his boyish, silky-smooth vocals and his complete mastery of the ivories — is his ability to switch effortlessly from sentimental to silly. Anthems like "Still Fighting It" and "Landed" always empower and inspire, but the crowd favorites were those songs that showcase the wit and profanity that catapulted Folds early in his career. "Rockin’ the Suburbs" was appropriately successful, and a made-up song joking about Brandeis and underage drinking and including an entire stanza of profane filler drew big laughs.
After all, this was a college show, not the Boston Pops.
Folds’ lyrics have matured with each album, but one has to wonder how he will resolve the tension between being 43 and his decision to continue to cater to the more base tastes of college audiences. For now, he seems successful at toggling between his younger listeners (who love his 2001 album, "Rockin’ the Suburbs") and older, "Boston Pops" fans (who prefer 2005’s "Songs for Silverman" and 2008’s "Way to Normal") â€” but will it all catch up with him?
Folds certainly seemed at home Nov. 5 singing many of his more shallow lyrical offerings in front of a sampling of the YouTube generation, as evidenced by his encore selection: "Bitches Ain’t Shit." Folds retired the satirical Dr. Dre-written song from his live shows, but agreed to play it since he’d never played it live at Brandeis. It was undoubtedly the climax of the show â€” the song kids had been yelling for Folds to sing the entire night â€” yet I would have preferred to hear one of his classic ballads like "Brick" or "The Luckiest."
Filing out of that gymnasium, though, one thought trumped all others: this guy can flat-out entertain. I didn’t take a scientific poll, but I’d venture a guess that if I did I would have been hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t satisfied — even if he plays one thing for the adults, and another thing for the kids.