Saturday, November 12, 2005

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson's show at the Patriot Center on Wednesday night contained few surprises. The country singer sported his trademark long silver-haired braids and spent half of the evening in a cowboy hat and half with his signature bandanna tied around his head. A giant Texas flag unfurled at the back of the stage during his opening song, "Whiskey River," a tune he reprised 90 minutes later.

Nor was Nelson's choice of songs unexpected. In addition to his own well-known tunes ("Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "Beer for My Horses"), Nelson played a few numbers written by his Highwaymen band mates: Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" and Waylon Jennings's "Good Hearted Woman." In fact, the biggest surprise of his set was that he didn't play anything from his latest album, the reggae collection "Countryman."

Still, Nelson's performance was fairly engaging. His guitar solo on "Always on My Mind" delivered the emotions that his voice's tinny timbre didn't, and his five-piece backing band's instrumentation on "All of Me" was so beautifully unstructured, it sounded improvised. Nelson seemed almost afraid of the mike, often singing so far from it that his voice blended into his band's accompaniment. He rarely paused to speak, jumping from one tune to the next with little room for audience applause. But despite this apparent shyness, pieces such as "Me and Paul," a song about road adventures with his longtime drummer, exposed Nelson's fun-loving personality.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

Ben Folds and the BSO

The average age of the audience at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert dropped a few decades Thursday night at Strathmore. The difference was immediately apparent -- just the dimming of the house lights at the start of the show garnered applause. These enthusiastic Generation X- and Yers were enticed by singer-songwriter Ben Folds, whose smart, often funny lyrics and compelling piano style -- think Elton John before the glitz set in -- drew a capacity crowd to the BSO's Pops Rocks program.

Wearing T-shirt, jeans and thick-rimmed glasses, the slight, 39-year-old Folds displayed a dynamic keyboard style that included rapid-fire stabs, pounding with his forearm and even using the seat of the piano stool on the keys. Folds's often compassionate songs use words that can't be printed in this newspaper and are about such real-life issues as abortion, depression and joining the Army.

The orchestra was resplendent alone, but its dramatic impact, along with its sound, was almost superfluous when Folds played the amplified grand piano and crooned into the over-modulated microphone. Only brass and percussion consistently pierced through. The arrangements were best in such ballads as "Brick" and "Lullabye," where adding lush strings was a natural; conductor Frank McNamara barely managed to keep the syncopated rhythms together in up-tempo tunes like "One Angry Dwarf."

While it's exciting to see a great pop artist backed by a full symphony orchestra, it seems a waste of talent to use one of our country's finest classical orchestras as mere "Pips." The packed house, wild cheering and elated grins indicated that the evening was a huge success, though it remains to be seen whether this audience will return for a classical program.

Ben Folds performs with the BSO tonight at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore.

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