by Matt Saldaña
Girl Talk, Ben Folds
Duke University’s Main Quad, Durham
Wednesday, April 22
Aboard the Duke University bus that transports folks between the school’s east and west campuses, two girls greeted each other yesterday through a sea of backpacks and limbs:
—Are you excited about the show?
—Yeah! Have you heard of anybody?
—The Gym Class ones, but nobody else.
It may be hard to believe that Ben Folds—who headlined this year’s annual all-day bread-and-circus of live music, booze and Panda Express known as Last Day of Classes—would be an unknown quantity to a pair of Duke undergrads. After all, Folds grew up in Winston-Salem and became famous leading Ben Folds Five while in Chapel Hill. As he admitted to the crowd last night, he played his first “paid show” at Duke back in the day. But Folds released his debut album when a quarter of Duke’s undergraduate class was still in kindergarten. While the college-aged woes of 1995’s Ben Folds Five are timeless, to be sure, the 40-something’s more recent lyrics about fatherhood might not strike a chord with the concertgoers whose biggest dilemma last night was figuring out the most efficient way to stay drunk all day. For one, it was using a Tecate 12-pack cardboard box to double as a snack pack of Frito’s. For another, it was filling an unmarked 2-liter bottle with jungle juice and assorted fruit, which she dropped and, alas, abandoned.
Folds’ performance—which was energetic, but sounded muted through a weak sound system—became an excuse for people to catch up, hug each other, exchange phone numbers and talk over what became background music. One student, hoisted onto her boyfriend’s shoulders, grew impatient with the newer material, with which Folds led the show. After telling her beau that the view was great, but meant she couldn’t finish her beer, she told Folds to “play something good, asshole.” For the diehard Folds fans—and those old enough to have watched MTV in the ’90s—it meant singing along to “Brick,” “Still Fighting It” and “Army” (during which, Folds broke a string … a piano string), occasionally yelling with ecstasy, and swaying back and forth, arms around your fellow man. Again, a lot of hugging.
Onstage, Folds looked to be enjoying his band and the fans in front, as he shifted between his signature, semi-crouched position at the piano to standing at the edge of the stage (and, at one point, on top of the instrument), urging people to sing along. Did he know of the end-of-semester drama and beer-drenched camaraderie that, for the most part, took center stage to his own performance? If so, he didn’t seem to mind—or maybe he felt content knowing his music was, indirectly, inspiring some sort of reaction.
Openers Gym Class Heroes, an amalgam of major-labor schlock rock and minor hip-hop, went out of its way to try to elicit a direct one: “Where are all the drunk females?” lead singer Travis McCoy said, before introducing “The Queen and I.” “I’m asking, not to be a scumbag, but because I have a song for you…I want to see you shake your fucking asses.” Despite the Heroes’ name recognition, its embarrassing Sam Cooke covers, and its forced overtures to “pure, fucking, sweaty, unadulterated love,” it was the relatively unknown Pittsburgh mash-up artist Greg Gillis, who mixes pop songs, rock and indie favorites under the name Girl Talk, who actually got people moving.
During the Girl Talk set, a young fellow in a yellow polo shotgunned a Miller Lite, danced a jig, then looked to a girl with dark hair and heavy eyeliner for approval. She smiled politely.
Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” spun above Nine Inch Nails and M.C. Hammer for 20 seconds or so near the end (as on Girl Talk’s “Here’s the Thing”). The trick had the crowd begging for an encore. Tag Team’s “Whoomp! There It Is” proved another crowd-pleaser, delivered along with toilet-paper streamers, colored confetti and a person dressed like a light bulb, the words “Bad Brilliance” printed on the yellow balloon he wore for his head.
It’s a shame Girl Talk went on so early, as it took skeptics a few songs to catch on, and many people were still enjoying the free, all-you-can-eat buffet at the dining hall. But he got the party started, and some of the movement he inspired continued through the Gym Class Heroes set. A young man wearing a checkered Oxford shirt spilling out of khaki shorts swiveled his hips and—in between chugs of Busch Lite—made out with his dance partner for several Heroes songs, including “Clothes Off!”
“This is, in no way, a prop or a scheme to get any of you naked … or is it?” McCoy said, by way of introduction.
“I hope it is!” a girl yelled back.
As darkness descended and the Heroes’ set gave way to the mostly undanceable nostalgia of Folds’ songs, a few in the crowd inevitably got left behind: “Evan! You lost me at the merch table,” one guy said into his cell phone, as he began reading from the branded gym towels for sale. “‘Property of Gym Class Heroes. $15.’ I have no idea where I am. You have to come save me. I’m so clueless right now.”