Last night, Ben Folds and Cake brought their double headlining tour to the Mann Center, the two alt-rock legends rocking the house with their idiosyncratic brands. One might be able to draw all sorts of comparisons and reasons as to why a co-headlining tour between these artists works so well, but I personally am willing to bet it began as a competition as to who could bring the best instruments. Folds’ lineup consisted of piano, of course, but also featuring opener Tall Heights as a backing band, who played on guitar, cello, cocktail drums, and adding a bass harmonica in lieu of an electric bass. Cake, not to be outdone, included an act of bass, drums, and guitar, with trumpet, melodica, and vibraslap, among several other percussion instruments. The two iconic groups were matched in wit and in talent, and their use of audience participation almost hypnotic.
Tall Heights opened while the sun was still shining within the auditorium, the electro-folk trio captivating early-comers with their charming, pop-influenced arrangements. Mentioning between songs that they were to be backing Ben Folds in the next set, front-man Tim Harrington commented, “We thought our songs were difficult, playing them every night, but when we were added to this tour and we had to learn a bunch of Ben Folds’ songs, in comparison ours were a piece of Cake,” to a collective groan from the crowd.
Folds entered shortly after, discretely taking his place at the piano and tapping out the opening chords to “Phone In A Pool,” a recent live favorite. Tall Heights entered during “The Ascent of Stan,” and jumping into “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” taking the parts of Folds’ former group Ben Folds Five, but now actually containing five members. The addition of a guitar was most noticeable, adding a Nashville sheen to some of his edgier songs, and giving the more heartfelt songs a folksy sincerity. On “Brick”, the group brought put the tense imagery of the verses with delicate harmonies, and on the duet “You Don’t Know Me,” artfully handled Regina Spektor’s parts by dividing them among the members of Tall Heights and the audience, the story of a confounding relationship changing from that of lovers to that of fans and performer.
Folds, being one for improvisation, added in a sort-of that, having composed a song for Philadelphia, appropriately titled “Philadelphia, PA,” a heartfelt anthem capturing the essence of the city. Afterwards Folds recalled meeting Paul Simon once at a show, where he received the advice “if you can get people listening to you in Philadelphia, you can get an audience anywhere,” high praise from such a prolific figure. Playing through both his solo work and that with the Five, he flexed off his control of the audience he gained within Philadelphia with another live favorite of his, “Not The Same,” where he recruits the audience for three part harmonies, abandoning his piano stool to conduct by the end. his set was a stellar reminder of his diverse and life-spanning catalog, able to pull from any era of his without any dips in quality or passion.
With a significant shake-up of the backdrop, now with an image of Nessie draped across the back of stage and a disco ball hovering over the band, Cake walked on to the theme from Rocky IV, and launched into “Opera Singer,” followed by Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes”. The five-piece handle a large crowd well, inspiring dance with their blues-y grooves with Latin influences, and front-man John McCrea rocking the vibraslap just as well as his acoustic guitar, his somewhat sardonic voice perfectly translating from studio to stage. His command of the audience showed best in his ability to get an entire amphitheater to sing along to the phrase “Sheep go to Heaven! Goats go to Hell!” and in a portion where he combed the audience for somebody to take an apple tree home, which sat on the stage for the first half of the set until it made its way to a lucky Philadelphian.
They closed on some of their commercial hits, “Never There” and “The Distance.” The applause after the latter never ceased until they returned to the stage for an unreleased song, titled “Sinking Ship” (“It’s a nautical song!”) with the most dour lyrics of the night, then finishing on “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” which fans of the TV series Chuck might recognize. Their chemistry among each other as well as their fans was palpable, and their set was tight and entertaining, their banter just as witty as their familiar songs.