It took maybe a minute for Ben Folds to go into conductor mode onstage at Memorial Auditorium Tuesday night. He’d come out, waved to the crowd, sat down at the piano and started into “Best Imitation of Myself” – a song dating back to the mid-1990s, when Ben Folds Five was still a local band not widely known beyond Chapel Hill.
“Do you think I should take a class to lose my Southern accent?” Folds sang, pausing to shoot a quizzical look at the crowd.
Right on cue, the answer came roaring back – “NO!” – and Folds nodded and continued.
Folds has been a cult-sized pop star since the late 1990s, when “Brick” lit up the radio and landed him on “Saturday Night Live.” In another life, one where he didn’t break through on the charts, it’s easy to imagine Folds making a living as the quirky-nerd director of the high school marching band.
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To that end, he’s always had a streak of conservatory wiz kid, running RCA Studio A in his current hometown of Nashville and doing projects like last year’s “So There” (an album centered on a piano concerto recorded with the Nashville Symphony) and 2009’s “University A Cappella!” Between songs Tuesday night, Folds did plenty of the standard explanation of inspiration behind various songs. But he also talked music theory while conducting on-the-fly vocal arrangements to get the audience to do backup vocals and handclaps.
“I’m kind of a perfectionist,” he deadpanned.
Tuesday’s show was opening night of the Winston-Salem native’s fall solo tour, and it found Folds back in his former Triangle stomping grounds to play for a friendly crowd numbering around 1,000. Folds had turned 50 the day before, a birthday that went unmentioned until a familiar voice in the audience pointed it out.
The show had the feel of a live rehearsal, which was relaxed but had a few rough spots. Folds flubbed a lyric or two, showed a bit of rust here and there and dropped a drumstick during the set-piece drum solo (in which the stage crew brought out a drumkit one piece at a time). Folds also banged the ever-loving bejesus out of the piano, equal parts Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace.
The emotional depths he plumbed, meanwhile, were deceptively heavy. For all his wisecracking humor, Folds is a funny guy in the same way that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a heart-warming holiday movie. Both descriptions are true enough as far as they go while missing the heart of darkness at the center.
Tuesday night, Folds played one song after another in a key of crushing self-doubt and tragic pathos, punctuated by florid, killer piano hooks. And after each song, he would emerge as if from under water to crack self-deprecating jokes.
The set included most of the “So There” songs as well as “Rock This Bitch,” a goofy little trifle that’s been a life-set staple for more than a decade. Folds added a verse, apparently impromptu, about his old hometown of Winston as the Moravian cookie capital of the world.
That was entertainingly self-indulgent, but it was Folds’ golden oldies that really resonated. The crowd was just right with the handclaps on “Annie Waits” and “Zak and Sara.” “Brick” (a cheery little song about a teenage abortion) was heartbreaking as ever, “Landed” even moreso.
The encore closed with “Army,” Ben Folds Five’s 1999 single, which never quite caught on with the mainstream but is still much-beloved among his fans – especially here on his old home turf. He nodded to the crowd to duplicate the original’s horn solo.
“Don’t let me down,” Folds said.