Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, Guster

Wolf Trap's Filene Center, Washington, D.C. 6/29/04

Music Reviews Ben Folds
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Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, Guster

It’s impossible to escape politics in Washington, D.C., even miles outside the city limits—even in a leafy national park, even during a rock ’n’ roll show. Nowhere else in America could you expect to see scantily clad female fans waving magic-markered posters that declare, “Guster *heart*’s Campaign Finance Reform.”

Such light-hearted civics lessons were par for the course Tuesday night, as Guster shared the stage with Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds at the Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in Vienna, Va. By the end of the night, the unlikely tourmates had treated the audience to several wry soliloquies on their perception of the state of the union (“not so hot,” in case you were wondering). Thankfully, they also remembered they were there to make music.

The co-billed acts have been rotating the performance order throughout the month-long tour, and this was Wainwright’s night in the opening slot. The lanky troubadour ambled into the cavernous outdoor amphitheater to scattered applause, the evening sky still light as concertgoers trickled in from picnic dinners on the lawn.

Alternating between sitting at his piano and perching on a stool with a guitar, Wainwright moved gracefully through a set that gave equal time to his older classics (“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” a sly ode to the seduction of overindulgence), recent hits (the operatic “Vibrate,” before which he invoked the spirit of soprano Renee Fleming to help him sustain the final note), and favorite covers (a simple, unadorned version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that rivals Jeff Buckley’s rendition).

Wainwright also introduced several new pieces, including the lovely and tremulous “Agnus Dei”—sung entirely in Latin—from the upcoming Want Two. Evidence of a religious conversion? Who knows. While clearly chastened by a recent recovery from his party-boy days, the diva in Wainwright couldn’t resist anchoring his set with a different kind of hymn—a rollicking, innuendo-laced ditty by the name of (paging controversy on line 1!) “Gay Messiah.” Wainwright (or “Rufus the Baptist,” as he dubs himself in the song) couched the number in a political context, urging the audience to get out the vote against anti-gay conservatives, but “Messiah” is more irreverent parody than outraged propaganda.

As the sinking sun began to cast shadows, Wainwright gave the overwhelming impression of someone haunted by the past—his own, as well as those who’ve gone before him. Dressed in black (and fabulous snakeskin shoes) in honor of Johnny Cash, Wainwright demonstrated he knows the value of homage. Along with carefully chosen covers, he wove the influence of great artists into the fabric of his original work without waxing derivative. He prefaced “Want,” for instance, by noting that it mentions “great songwriters like John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and my dad.”

In that song, Wainwright revealed other ghosts that pursue him, insisting he doesn’t want to be any of those men—except for his father, folk musician Loudon Wainwright III. Family, in all its dysfunctional glory and pain, is a fundamental theme for Wainwright, who invited his mother, the legendary Kate McGarrigle, onstage to accompany him for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” (“I’ve had to sing this song since the age of six,” he said. “Two,” Mom corrected him. “Since the womb,” he shot back.) In the set closer, “Dinner at Eight,” Wainwright admitted that he’s still wrestling with his upbringing. “This is about my dad,” he said bluntly, and went on to croon heartbreaking lyrics:

Why is it so
That I've always been the one who must go
That I've always been the one told to flee
When it fact you were the one long ago
Actually in the drifting white snow
You left me.

The great shame of Wainwright’s otherwise stunning performance was that it fell prey to all the hazards of a large, outdoor venue. The buzzing audience couldn’t seem to pay attention; the enormous space in the Wolf Trap managed to handle the lush, baroque layers that characterize his album sound, but it also gobbled up the strains of his elegant solo piano. Wainwright’s musical style and personality are better suited to a more intimate setting, and it’s unfortunate that both his subtlety and virtuosity were so ill serviced by the oversized room.

As soon as Wainwright left the stage, it became evident which artist most of the audience was there to see. A small but adamant army (there’s no such thing as a lukewarm Guster fan), they were out in force at the Wolf Trap.

Me, I’m not a natural-born Guster lover. I was prepared to write them off as a boy band for college students who also like jambands (guitarist Adam Gardner could easily pass for heartthrob Nick Lachey). But after witnessing them live, it’s easy to see why they’re so universally adored. Darned if those Guster guys aren’t likeable, energetic fellows whose creativity and talent feed directly off the enthusiasm of the crowd.

The core of Guster—Gardner, Ryan Miller and Brian Rosenworcel—came together at Tufts University in the early ’90s with only the essentials: two guitars and some bongos. Over the years, their sound has evolved from three guys jamming in a dorm room into a five-piece wall of sound, making for a delightful paradox in their live performances. Guster may come across as a well-oiled, pop-rock machine these days (thanks largely to new member Joe Pisapia, a musical jack-of-all-trades who adds both depth and breadth to the repertoire), but it’s also retained its laid-back, self-deprecating hippie soul.

As a live unit, Guster had everything going for it—Rosenworcel’s hyperactive drumming, Miller and Gardner’s tight harmonies as they traded lead vocals, Pisapia’s multi-instrumental chops. What drove the show, though, was the mutual affection between musicians and audience, Guster’s huge, overarching exuberance working symbiotically with the crowd’s. The guys on the stage seemed just as thrilled as the audience on the floor during the opening notes of “Amsterdam,” Gardner mouthing lyrics like a giddy fanboy whenever he stepped away from the mic. A bouncy cover of Belle & Sebastian’s “Boy with the Arab Strap” had the place on its feet, clapping “for five minutes straight” as Miller instructed them.

Guster’s melodies still aren’t particularly complicated—nor the lyrics more than serviceably clever—but clearly, that’s not why people get into them. Most bands give their listeners lip service, but you can tell Guster really, really likes the people who come to its shows, right down to the good natured ribbing fans receive on its website. Sure, sometimes I wanted to say to the girl next to me, “Honey? If you cheer the whole time, you can’t actually hear the sweet harmonies during the breakdown.” But I probably would’ve just killed her buzz, and nobody likes a curmudgeon. It’s easy to be a cynic among Guster fans—but it’s just not as much fun as giving in to the sing-alongs.

When I’m honest, though, I have no room to get snarky about Guster fans. After all, the way they love Guster—shamelessly, zealously, jubilantly—is the exact same way I love the next artist who takes the stage. If there’s one man for whom I will swallow my journalistic pride and pump my fist in the air with abandon, it’s Ben Folds.

Like Wainwright, Folds made pop music safe for the piano again, its popularity having taken a hit during the grunge era. But Folds’ approach to the keyboard, his entire posture before it, was so opposite Wainwright’s that they might as well have been playing two different instruments. As could be expected from a guy with a punk background and more than a little energy to burn, Folds crouched before the piano as if about to pounce. He attacked, he pounded, he pummeled—a kamikaze Jerry Lee Lewis in Buddy Holly glasses hitting gloriously atonal chords.

Folds’ high-strung exuberance played well in the Wolf Trap, which was packed to capacity by then. At that point in the night, the crowd was well-lubricated and ready to do anything Folds asked of them—good thing, since he demands a lot from an audience. Guster worshippers may bop along in rapt adoration, but Folds fans are left to shout key lyrics (“God, please spare me more rejection!” during “Army”) and provide the “bitchin’ horn section” by imitating saxophones and trumpets in the same number. It’s safe to say that Folds spent as much time standing on top of his piano as sitting in front of it, conducting the crowd like the deranged director of a high-school glee club.

But Folds is also capable of taking it down a notch; he’s the master of the delicate, heartbreaking piano ballad. “Gracie,” a new one about his four-year-old daughter, captured endearing snapshots of fatherhood; the line “you’ll be a lady soon / but till then / you gotta do what I say” earned a gentle chuckle from the crowd. Folds quieted the audience completely with another new song “for anyone who loved Elliott Smith’s music as much as I did,” a frank, shattering address to the recently deceased singer/songwriter that concludes, “It’s too late / It’s been too late for a long time.”

Like a musical David Sedaris, Folds excelled at sly jokes that, in the next beat, twisted into woefully bittersweet parables, moving effortlessly from the sardonic to the sentimental and back again. In set opener “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You,” Folds was plaintive as he indicted hipper-than-thou poseurs, alternating embarrassingly earnest lines with the invective he’s known for: “Life is beautiful / We’re all children of / One big universe / So you don’t have to be / A chump.” Later, In “All U Can Eat,” from the recent EP Sunny 16, Folds envisioned himself on a Wal-Mart loudspeaker, calling out Americans who “give no f*ck / They buy as much as they want.” The song had a deeply sad musical quality to it, as Folds mourned, “God made us number one because he loves us the best / Well, he should go bless somebody else for awhile / Give us a rest.”

Much of Folds’ schtick, however, is just unequivocally goofy. He infused the classic “Philosophy” with pulse-pounding take-offs on “Chopsticks” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” raising his eyebrows at the audience to see if they were enjoying the joke. His notorious potty-mouth played front-and-center, as he took full advantage of the sign-language interpreter provided by the Wolf Trap standing at stage right. He’d throw extra profanity in where it didn’t belong, then glance gleefully at her to “see how you sign ‘a**hole.’” Childish and obnoxious, maybe, but it brought the house down—and had the middle-aged interpreter in fits of laughter.

The night’s best moments came when Folds invited his tourmates to accompany him. Wainwright swaggered out for a mind-melting cover of George Michael’s “Careless Whispers,” a song so terrible it was nothing short of irresistible as the piano men belted, “Guil-ty feet have got no rhy-thm” in soaring harmony. Later, Guster joined Folds for “Give My Notice to Judy,” which disintegrated into the raucous, barely controlled chaos of live favorite “Rock This Bitch,” with Folds screaming incoherently in hair-rocker falsetto and the Guster guys grinning as they switched up instruments and went along for the ride.

In his final gesture, Folds once again called upon the audience for backup, dividing it into sections to provide a three-part harmony in “Not the Same.” After charging through the gorgeous number—one of his best—Folds climbed atop the piano and, assuming his choir director persona, let the audience have the last word. The notes were sung over and over again as he crept off the stage without fanfare, creating a moment so spine-tinglingly beautiful and harmonious that, just for an instant, it was possible to forget we were outside the most politically polarized city in America.