The whole idea behind his current Paper Airplane Request Tour — and, in essence, the core inspiration in the remarkable bond that Ben Folds has forged with concert audiences through the years — comes down to etiquette. More specifically, the veteran composer and pianist terms it “good manners.”
“I can’t help but understand there are people sitting right in front of me during a show. To me, this just feels like good manners to acknowledge the fact rather than go up and basically be a wind-up that just doesn’t realize that. It’s funny because I don’t think of myself necessarily as a natural performer.
“People are there. They’ve changed their plans for what they’re doing that night. They’re right in front of you. If something happens that’s different and it changes, that makes that night, that moment you had, a different one. It’s sort of existential. If the world blew up right then, would you want to be a wind-up robot or would you have wanted to have been on a cloud full of people you’re enjoying a moment with?”
I feel like it’s just good manners to do this. It’s interesting.
Ben Folds on his Paper Airplane Request tour
The gist of the Paper Airplane Request Tour is largely self-explanatory. Accompanying himself on piano, Folds begins his concerts with a set of pre-selected pop works that extends from his 1990s recordings with the Ben Folds Five to a 2015 album titled “So There” that features a set of chamber-laced songs with the yMusic Ensemble and a piano concerto recorded with the Nashville Symphony. A second set opens the show to requests. So how will audiences get their requests to Folds? Song titles are to be written down, folded into paper airplanes and flown to the stage.
“These shows are great,” said Folds, who performs in Lexington for the first time in 15 years (almost to the week) on Halloween night at the Opera House. “It certainly keeps me on my toes, because I’ve written, recorded, played and just gone through quite a bit of material over the years. I get full appreciation of that every time I pull up an airplane, because I’m not sure what it’s going to say.
“I’ve done my homework enough to get through these sets. There is an obscure list of 30 to about 80 songs that I might not be doing a bang-up, we’re-going-to-record-this-at-this-moment job of. I’m not sure if there is a way I could do that. But I think the folks asking for something that obscure, they get it. So I pick up my book of obscure songs and I play from that. That’s actually pretty fun.”
Such a novel form of taking requests is an extension of the audience rapport that Folds regularly creates at his shows, especially his solo piano performances. What he noticed years ago was the audience’s desire to sing along to his pop creations. That has evolved into concert exchanges in which Folds directs full rounds of vocal harmony between audience and artist.
“People were singing anyway,” he said. “They really were doing it during the solo piano tour after 9/11. People were just singing. If you had a full band onstage, it wouldn’t be as obvious. But people were singing harmonies and all kinds of stuff. It was really as if there was a moment where people were wanting to sing. I think that’s just the way people are. I remember there was this one time when I was playing the song ‘Not the Same’ (from 2001’s “Rockin’ the Suburbs” album). This was in Champaign, Ill., and I heard complete three-part harmonies happening during the chorus out in the whole audience. It wasn’t just two people in the front. The next night in the next town, it happened again. Now I realized, ‘Well, they want to do that, so I should probably guide it a little so that they know how to do it.’
“Anything that I’ve tried like that in a show has started with the audience. Sure, there’s the odd moment where someone is beat-boxing in the front row or something, where you really want to have security take them out. But other than that, I feel like it’s just good manners to do this. It’s interesting. As a result, I’ve run into people on the street and their way of recognizing me is like we’re old friends. If it were someone else who was famous for music, their fans wouldn’t be nearly that nice.”