KXT 91.7 FM’s program director Benji McPhail wasted little time saying what was likely on the minds of most filing into the Kessler Theater Wednesday night.
“You are never gonna see Ben Folds in a place this small ever again,” he offered by way of introduction.
The sold-out space — 435 people in all, according to McPhail’s introduction — was indeed crackling with anticipation for the rare, intimate performance, itself designated a “KXT member event,” and for which the few available tickets sold vaporized in a matter of minutes. (I’m a regular contributing writer for KXT.)
This made Wednesday’s performance — the first appearance Folds had made in North Texas in four years as well as being, by far, the coziest solo gig he’s ever played — feel extraordinary before a single note had been played on the enormous grand piano on the Kessler stage.
The 56-year-old Folds, gearing up to release What Matters Most, his first solo album in 15 years, did not disappoint. Sprinkling a few as-yet-unreleased tunes among beloved selections from his back catalog, Folds breezed through 11 songs in just under an hour, giving fresh relevance to the old showbiz adage about leaving your audience craving more.
Folds opened with the comic “Exhausting Lover,” the lead single from Most, which chronicles a musician’s hook-up on the road gone amusingly awry. He segued into “Annie Waits,” from his 2001 solo debut, Rockin’ the Suburbs, and then pivoted into an explanation of the process behind a couple of the tracks from Most.
“Fragile” and “Kristine from the Seventh Grade” — each quite funny, to the point where raucous laughter was rippling through the room — grew out of Folds’ writing exercises during the pandemic, when he would take stories from the newspaper to use as fodder for songs. “I didn’t intend to put songs from this exercise on my record, but they were better than the shit I was writing,” he joked.
That weight of time resurfaced more than once Wednesday, but was felt most acutely when Folds discussed the genesis of Most’s title track, which had its roots in Folds spending time cleaning out long-held storage units and the startling news of a friend’s death via text message.
Few artists besides Folds could mime bidding a disused power strip farewell and immediately pivot to the gut punch of sudden loss, finding a way to wring both laughter and tears from an audience.
And the Kessler audience, in lockstep with the artist throughout, provided some of the night’s most electrifying moments. Save for the newer material, Folds had vocal accompaniment for every other song on the setlist, but this participation reached a giddy apex during “You Don’t Know Me,” which Folds prefaced by saying “If you know Regina [Spektor]’s part, sing it loud,” as unnecessary an invitation as asking the sun to burn a little hotter in July.
The crowd obliged, filling in neatly along, behind and beside Folds’ vocals, leading him to chuckle approvingly at the gusto with which a few audience members, at the tables near the stage, leaned into singing.
It was a moment surpassed only by the subsequent song, “Army,” from Ben Folds Five’s 1999 LP The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. So unabashed was the audience’s enthusiasm that Folds murmured “damn” as he brought the song to its tender conclusion, the room erupting in cheers.
That sensation of sharing a moment with an artist in a room of a size he rarely headlines anymore was intoxicating. It was also a vivid reminder of just how fortunate those gathered at the Kessler Theater Wednesday night were to share in it.