Ben Folds is always good for a quirky curveball. The zany piano man pleasantly surprised a packed house at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last night, where, midway through a performance by the reunited Ben Folds Five, unannounced odd couple Wayne Coyne and Nashville’s own Ke$ha joined the band onstage. Folds’ trio backed the Flaming Lips frontman and glitter-pop princess on a rollicking, saloon-like cover of the comical Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn duet, “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.”
“I’ve been shittin’ my pants the whole night because I’m so excited about this,” Folds said as he introduced the duo, jokingly calling them an amazing, curious couple he’d discovered days earlier in Branson, Missouri.
The pair – clasped arm in arm, with Coyne clad in a lime-green tuxedo and Ke$ha carrying a cheap bouquet – looked like hillbilly newlyweds as they strolled onstage to thunderous, awestruck applause and the band rolled into the campy country classic. “It’s about ugly babies!” Ke$ha said of the song, which Folds handpicked and Coyne claimed he’d heretofore never heard of. The tune is actually a satirical take on matrimonial acrimony, and the two singers hammed it up, acting out traded lines in a lyrical blame game tackling alcoholism, poverty, receding hairlines and, naturally, ugly babies.
“Now we don’t know if [Twitty and Lynn] actually ever sang that song onstage here, but why don’t we say they did that 35 years ago this day,” Coyne joked over the song’s intro. The Ryman – the transformed tabernacle that was home the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974 – was also the home of Hee Haw, and this performance played out like one of that show’s side-splitting countrified sketches.
Twitty and Lynn did duet on the show, and on the Ryman stage, in 1971 and 1973, though they didn’t perform “You’re the Reason . . . ” So Coyne was only a little bit off.
Taking on Lynn’s half of the novelty knee-slapper, Ke$ha not only played her hometown’s most hallowed stage for the first time, but she showed the crowd she can actually, really sing – belting out pitch-perfect, glass-shattering notes atypical of her speak-singing, gutter-chic electropop.
“She’s a great talent,. She’s gonna be around for a long time,” Folds said of the singer as she exited the stage. Coyne and Folds are collaborating on a track for the “Tik Tok” singer’s forthcoming follow-up to her 2010 breakthrough, Animal.
“This is why I do this music gig!” Folds told Rolling Stone later. Coyne and Ke$ha, he said, “are both ace people. True and unique talents. I hope our effort together towards Ke$ha’s new album sees the light of day. I arranged some strings, and Wayne did some singing.”
Last night was also a special one for Ben Folds Five, even without the special guests: Folds noted that it was the band’s first time playing indoors in 13 years. It was also the last show before the release of the band’s first record in over a decade, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, which drops today. “If you’re feeling charitable, you can actually pay for it,” Folds told the crowd, joking that the label reps in the house were probably running towards the exits in panic mode.
The band dedicated about a quarter of the set to new jams. Those included the opener, a harmony-laden Beach Boys hat-tip called “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”; the bipolar, trudging-to-dreamy cabaret pop standout “Erase Me”; the fit-for-a-car-chase-scene lead single “Do It Anyway,” and the album’s title track, which Folds explained was co-written with novelist Nick Hornby about author Sarah Vowell.
Each new number played like a throwback to the band’s gleefully sardonic, guitar-less, piano-driven “punk rock for sissies” – Andrew Gold for alt-rockers. Like any nostalgic reunion gig, it was back-catalog cuts, including the spirited “Uncle Walter” (complete with Lemmy-worthy bass tone), stirring versions of “Alice Childress” and “Brick” and whimsically aggressive takes on charging piano-rockers “Song for the Dumped” and a closing “Underground,” that brought the house down.
“Let’s hear it for the Nineties!” Folds said in earnest at one point during the show. Yes, let’s.