Ben Lee gives more than he gets. At only 26, he's been burnishing his craft since his early teens, yet for some reason can't disarm the major radio outlets. Though his current CD (the crystalline, contemplative Awake Is the New Sleep) features more affecting material than the recent albums of either of the two artists with whom he's touring, Lee was stuck opening the Friday, Aug. 26, show at Chateau Ste. Michelle—which meant watching those who had shown up to see Ben Folds or Rufus Wainwright wander right past the stage with hot dogs and sodas. Fortunately, you can't, as they say, keep a good man down.
"We're here to play the best filing-in music you've ever heard in your life," Lee joked, then delivered on the promise, leading his sunny band through six openhearted "songs about waking up" as though he were having a genuine conversation with the audience.
From "To Begin" ("When I hit a wall/I look up at the sky") to his latest single, "Catch My Disease ("They don't play me on the radio/But that's the way I like it"), he communicated an undaunted expressiveness. By the time he was climbing over the front rows for a jubilant sing-along to "We're All in This Together," you had to believe his anthemic proposal: "Hey there, people, I don't want to rush you/I'm just trying to reach out and touch you."
That wasn't quite the case with Folds, whose appealing bleat and muscular piano playing still find themselves at the mercy of collegiate irony. (Friday, too, his piano—as well as his voracious drummer and bassist—clobbered everything into athletic monotony.) He brought Wainwright out for a tongue-in-cheek duet of George Michael's "Careless Whisper," which neither of them could sing; Folds, meanwhile, went the wink-wink rout again with his own prettified rendering of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit." Though the crowd ate it up, Folds' nudging, happy hipster act seems a waste—he's yet to contribute anything as substantial to the piano man genre as even Billy Joel. ("Brick," his one big hit—emphatically not performed—was how many years ago?)
Wainwright, free of the Michael misstep, closed the evening with confidence. His musical eclecticism, contrary to most critics' love letters, is starting to work against him, but then there's that voice—a wide, searching, ecstatic, ruminative whine that comes rushing out even when his mouth looks to be open about half a centimeter. When that remarkable instrument latched onto a solid tune, like his elegantly novellalike "Poses" or a Cohen-by-way-of-Buckley cover of "Hallelujah" (a shimmering duet with his sister Lucy), it reminded you that there are few more distinctive sounds in popular music.