Last Wednesday's edition of Uptown Mix was full of both heart (local piano-toting idol Ben Folds) and soul (reggae legends Toots & The Maytals). Though their musical styles were different, both delivered passionate performances and roused a mostly worshipful audience. Regretfully, we missed the promising opening act, The Astronaut Pushers, a new trio with Matt Slocum, formerly of Sixpence None the Richer; Sam Ashworth, former frontman of My Tyger; and Lindsay Jamieson, Folds' newest drummer and a former member of British transplants Departure Lounge.
Toots Hibbert, longtime leader of a revolving door of Maytals, had the crowd chanting and clapping along with arms raised throughout his performance. He sought and received enthusiastic audience interaction to his call and response, singing with conviction and telling listeners that he was the teacher (although the lesson was pretty simple: "everybody's got soul"). In keeping with the spiritual fervor that runs through much reggae music, the concert felt more like a frenzied religious gathering, Toots passionately directing his followers to sing louder. Chanting lyrics in his deep, soulful voice, he merrily danced and hopped about the stage, thanking concert-goers with seeming humbleness while also reminding them to buy his new album.
Highlights of the set included "True Love," the title track of Toots' latest albumwhich features collaborations with a diverse array of musicians, from Willie Nelson to Bonnie Raitt to No Doubt to Bootsy Collinsand his cover of John Denver's "Country Roads," from his 1973 album Funky Kingston. The band generally stuck to the moderate, loping tempos reggae is known for, but also incited the crowd by speeding up the tempo mid-song. Every number became a long, drawn-out jam, and while Toots remained energetic onstage, the crowd's energy waned by the end of the set.
Between the acts, organizers cautiously made announcements while the crowd responded with childish booing. After a long list of sponsors were named and inflated pink squares advertising a wireless phone service were tossed offstage with the strict warning not to throw them back (or you'll be in big trouble, mister), Ben Folds hurried onstage. For the next hour or so, the power-pop enthusiast swiftly alternated between Ben Folds Five material, songs from his solo releases, and new material from his forthcoming album. Bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson rounded out the lineup, serving as his first band since Ben Folds Five disbanded in 2001. The new outfit is yet to be named, but the bandleader spouted out the possibilities of "Ben Folds and Brown Rainbow" and "Ben Folds and Two Other Motherfuckers."
Folds' lyrics were spattered with irony and introspective truths about suburban life, which literally hit home in Nashville, the city where he now resides with his wife and children. His piano sliced into the muggy night with the opening cords of The Cure's "In Between Days," immediately followed by a character sketch of a young couple, "Zak and Sara." While the first two songs sounded muffled, the soundman fixed the problems as the singer engaged the crowd, joking, "It's nice to be in Nashville," as though he were visiting for the first time.
While Folds' albums showcase a panoply of instrumental talent, his live performance focused on his piano playing and cheerful personality. His hands rarely left the piano bar, except when he moonlighted on a maraca while playing the chords for "Hero" with his other hand. If outdoor shows are typically uneven affairs thanks to the noisy crowds and lousy acoustics, Folds countered that with his adoration for the piano and his warm, focused presence. Changing lyrics to suit the moment and deftly quoting musical passages from across the spectrum of pop culture, he knew exactly how to play to his audience. Mentioning the excessive drunkenness in one of his choruses, he offered up a couple chords from Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild"; pointing out the glow of televisions coming through the windows of nearby apartments, he played a rendition of the Cops theme song, "Bad Boys." His jocular attitude shone throughout the show, making light of outside distractions, as when he tossed off an impromptu reggae song about the loud Harley Davidsons cruising by.
The audience responded adoringly, as numerous fans threw out their arms and unabashedly mimed air piano. Farther back in the crowd, though, drunk and obnoxious fans could be heard singing along loudly with the songs they knew and talking even more loudly through the ones they didn't. During the ballads "Fred Jones Part Two" and "Brick"songs about real problems, like an old man's life becoming obsolete and a young couple's abortionthe sound of voices singing along rippled throughout the parking lot, while during faster songs like "Army," "Rockin' the Suburbs" and "Song for the Dumped," the audience filled in missing trumpets and strings with their voices, much like they do on Ben Folds Live. Folds touched on politics pointedly when he inserted the line, "On the eve of John Kerry's election" into the radio hit "Army," gaining a mixed reaction from the crowd, which was full of Vandy students.
The audience's attention wavered briefly during a couple new songs and a cover of The Darkness' "Get Your Hands Off My Woman," on which Folds lightened the verses, but kept the chorus hard and shrill. He quickly regained interest with the finale of "Not the Same," when he stomped onto the top of his piano and orchestrated the audience's harmonies with gusto. With every "aahhh," he held his hands up longer, pushing the audience's voices to break, often with laughter. It might not have been as beautiful as a church choir, but with Folds as the conductor, it was a hell of a lot of fun.