Ben Folds, Hammersmith Apollo, London

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The Independent Culture

Slight of frame, sensibly dressed and bespectacled, Ben Folds takes to the Hammersmith Apollo stage, stands at a grand piano, and plays a monumental two and a half hour set which brings the house down. Now 44, Folds still has more energy and enthusiasm than men half his age, and can rock harder than most of them to boot. Appearances, it seems, can be deceiving.

Beginning with the irreverent "Levi Johnston's Blues", a blues-rock song about Bristol Palin's now-infamous pregnancy, Folds' taste for the unusual is instantly apparent, but so is his knowledge of melody and tone. Moving into "Doc Pomus", Folds and his band combine Beach Boys harmonies with a formidable bass-heavy punch, a sound familiar to any fans of the sadly defunct Ben Folds Five. A tongue-in-cheek – yet still excellent – cover of Ke$ha's "Sleazy" ("we decided to cover whatever was the iTunes No 1," Folds dryly informs us) and the pun-filled "Effington" reveal Folds' playful side. But later on, tracks like "Still Fighting It" and "Mess" show Folds can also write some magical, moving stuff when he wants to. The mammoth 27-song setlist indicates the sheer strength of Folds' enormous back-catalogue, while the precision with which the band has honed Folds' unique brand of piano-driven rock is tonight never less than totally capivating.

Folds himself is the high point of the show however, his communicative voice and deft ear for composition amazing the audience time and again. Add to this his effortlessly brilliant, note-perfect virtuosity at the piano and you get a frontman whose talent defies description. It's an absolute joy to watch someone so gifted perform, and Folds can be persuasive, poignant or punk depending on his mood. The stunning encore "Not The Same" epitomises the show, Folds making a choir of the rapt crowd; they'll follow his lead anywhere, you sense. Tonight it's easy to see why.