‘Piano King’ rocks NoHo’s Calvin Theater

By Ellie Rulon-Miller

Ben Folds rocks so hard, he sometimes breaks pianos.

Such was the case when he played at the Calvin Theater in Northampton on Saturday night. After playing 20 songs lasting over two hours, a pedal on the house piano was so weakened and damaged by the rocking force of his right foot that Folds had to step away from the piano while two men came out and repaired it.

While the men worked on the pedal, Folds sang “Bitches Ain’t Shit” sans-piano while the audience sang along before returning to the piano to play four more songs and an encore.

Prior to Folds’ set, the crowd met Kate Miller-Heidke with enthusiasm. Fans, visibly eager to see Ben Folds and initially displeased that they should have to wait through an opening act, appreciated her charm and sense of humor, particularly when she played her viral hit, “Are You F*cking Kidding Me? (The Facebook Song).” Women in the audience were likely envious of her clothes, as she stepped onto the stage in a practical-yet-chic little black dress and the most fabulous pair of boots to match.

Miller-Heidke began her set with a sweet, slow song before her acoustic guitar player, who also contributed backing vocals, joined in and she added her own tambourine. She told little anecdotes from her life that helped explain certain songs, such as her regretting the way she treated a few specific schoolmates in her song “Caught in the Crowd.” Some songs had a bit of a hip-hop feel to them as well.

She, like Folds, was unafraid to get silly; during a few songs, she would hold some notes for an extended period of time and, in others, would randomly begin to sing opera-style (Miller-Heidke is classically trained). While interesting and unexpected, the opera singing got a little irritating when repeated. She even threw it into her performance when Folds brought her out during his set to play his song “You Don’t Know Me,” originally recorded with Regina Spektor.

As with many opening acts, a lot of the audience began to filter into the theater towards the end of Miller-Heidke’s set, which is unfortunate for them; they missed a terrific performance.

Shortly after Miller-Heidke left the stage and her keyboard and microphone were removed and packed away, seats were abandoned and the theater drowned in screams as Ben Folds appeared from stage left, took a bow, and sat at the piano.

Where Kate Miller-Heidke had been dressed to the nines, Ben Folds dressed unremarkably in gray pants and a t-shirt, almost unfit to appear on the stage of the beautiful Calvin Theater until beginning to play.

Throughout Folds’ set, you could hear him stomping on the ground, keeping time with his left foot – all the way from the balcony, which makes the idea of his foot actually breaking the piano much easier to understand.

Folds also gave short explanations of different songs throughout his performance. He told the story behind the song “Effington,” revealing that he had actually gotten the name of the town the song is about wrong when he wrote it. It is about a town called Effingham. He added that, for writing a song about it, the mayor of Effingham had sent him a letter offering him a burial plot in the town.

Folds has recently been writing a few songs with Nick Hornby. He played three new songs for which Hornby wrote the lyrics and Folds wrote the music, including “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” which were all well-received by the crowd.

The most interesting part of the set was when Folds somehow managed to turn the audience into a four-part chorus. He asked everyone to sing whatever parts they thought fit their vocal range, which miraculously worked out to four almost-equal parts of the crowd. After demonstrating what each part of the chorus would be singing, he flailed his hands in the air, conducting everyone. He taught everyone new parts at the end of his set and erratically conducted everyone, explaining that “this is how you score a movie.”

Folds played a perfect mixture of fun, fast songs and slow, serious songs. He played “Not the Same,” a song about a friend of his who got high at a party, climbed a tree, and woke up a born-again Christian as well as “The Luckiest,” a flows-like-water slow song about being powerfully in love. For the encore, Folds busted out his hit “Rockin’ the Suburbs.”

If the broken piano wasn’t a clear indication that Ben Folds put on a great show, the rejuvenated moods of everyone in the theater afterwards ought to be. Some stayed around the theater, hoping to meet Folds. Those who waited long enough got the chance to get an autograph and a photo with one of the kings of piano rock.

Ellie Rulon-Miller can be reached at [email protected]