This past Saturday, two worlds collided at Mandel Hall. Geographically, at least. Australia's own wunderkind Ben Lee joined forces with North Carolina native (and Australia resident) Ben Folds for a show that may have surpassed the usual Chicago Presents fare in terms of unchecked gusto and obscenities. The two friends and sometime collaborators, though natives of different lands, are of a similar musical vein. Lee, in his early 20s, crafts catchy pop tunes that combine big beats, inventive guitar, and clever lyrics. Ditto for the 37-year-old Folds, except subtract the guitar and add a piano. They're also both smart alecks, which comes across a little on their records, but can't be denied in concert.
Lee was a star down under before most kids his age were out of high school. He started off with Sydney band Noise Addict, and then became one of the first artists signed to the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label. He put out four full-length albums before the age of 24, gaining somewhat of a cult following in America on the strength of his 1999 LP Breathing Tornados. Recently, however, Lee has been known more for his relationship with actress Claire Danes than for his music. With Grand Royal now defunct, his 2002 album Hey You. Yes You. did not see domestic release until this year.
Despite having produced merely a blip on the American music radar, Lee was greeted enthusiastically by the sold-out Mandel Hall crowd, as he took the stage promptly at 8 p.m. Lee was gregarious from the start of his first song for the "rowdy college crowd." Dressed in a brown blazer and a t-shirt that read "Nurses Do It Better," the diminutive Lee showed a knack for the high register of the vocal range and a deft touch with a mean guitar riff.
Accompanied by a guitarist and a keyboardist/drummer, Lee ran through an hour's worth of poppy tunes, spiked with often-hilarious asides to the audience.
With his mussed hair and schoolboy looks, Lee stands apart more for his youthful smart-ass humor than his music, which is pleasant but not extraordinarily innovative. "This is rad! I'm having fun!" said Lee at the beginning of his set, an attitude that never dissipated. He joked about his lack of precision, "bulimic" beats, and a gay rollerblader. He used pocket change as percussion, played with his back to the audience for part of a song, and even stormed Mandel's center aisle on a few occasions. In short, Ben Lee had almost as much fun as his audience did.
After a 15-minute set change, Ben Folds took a seat behind his black grand piano, and continued the momentum that Lee had initiated, which was custom-fit to the college audience. A solo artist since his guitar-less trio Ben Folds Five disbanded in 2000, Folds released a solo LP in 2001, a live album in 2002, and two EPs in 2003. He's had success on his own, although he became a star of sorts with the Five's three stellar LPs, along with a few well received singles.
Fold's set consisted of songs from his entire catalogue, including the ones he penned with his old band. He is as witty a songwriter as they come, and he is equally adept with a heartache ballad (the standout "Selfless, Cold, and Composed") as he is with a self-deprecating ode to his, um, strangely shaped attributes ("Philosophy"). A virtuoso at the keys, Folds is unafraid to improvise a song, like he did in reaction to a peanut gallery comment about rocking Saddam Hussein's ass. He also never met a curse word he didn't like.
Halfway through his set, Folds was joined onstage by Lee, and it was then apparent how like brothers the two Bens are. Besides their ragamuffin hair and sense of humor, the two also share a mutual admiration, which was evident in both their comments and their musical collaboration. They played a lovely ballad and then a genuinely affecting version of the Divinyl's "I Touch Myself." No joke. Lee proved himself to be the perfect partner in musical shenanigans for Folds.
Folds was able to engage the crowd in ways that Lee did not attempt. On the fan favorite "Army" from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Folds instructed the crowd in a two-part harmonic imitation of saxophones and trumpets. He upped the ante with the set-closer "Not the Same" off his solo debut Rockin' the Suburbs, during which he orchestrated the singing of three different vocal pitches from the top of his piano. Folds soon returned for a two-song encore, playing two songs from the Five's Whatever and Ever Amen: "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," and "Song for the Dumped," which featured a minor chord progression and Japanese lyrics. Folds certainly pulled out all the stops.
Though not everyone in the audience was familiar with all of Lee's and Folds's catalogues, the two artists certainly delivered exuberance in place of any lack of familiarity with their material. If Lee is struggling to find a receptive American audience, he found about a thousand new fans among the Mandel Hall throng. As for Folds, already a minor rock celebrity, he proved himself able to rock almost as hard without a band to back him up. The result of the night was not a clash of two worlds but a demonstration of musical diplomacy.