- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

Two piano men took the stage Wednesday at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center with only the tool of their trade in common.

Rufus Wainwright, he of the impressive musical lineage (Loudon Wainwright, Kate McGarrigle), and geek god Ben Folds both live and die by those 88 keys, but in concert, they stand worlds apart.

The dichotomy proved entertaining, if one could endure the cultural and aesthetic whiplash.

First, Mr. Folds delighted the sold-out crowd with his jazz-infused romps, only to have the slickly theatrical Mr. Wainwright lull the audience toward a gentle good night.

Mr. Folds, touring to support his most recent disc, “Songs for Silverman,” couldn’t care less about appearances. He mocked his humid ‘do and stood scissor-legged over the piano bench as if it were lined with thumbtacks.

He’s a deliriously entertaining piano player, not averse to crushing the keys with a forearm for a dash of spice.

His set leaned heavily on “Silverman,” a melodious batch of material typical of his songbook — witty, occasionally verbose and never dull.

The album’s “Bastard” opened his set, and he ran through material new and old without touching his one hit single, “Brick.”

With such a fervent fan base, who needs a layup?

It also helps that Mr. Folds’ precious voice loses some of its bitterness when cast across an expanse such as the open-air Vienna music hall.

That mischievous spirit hit its high point with a Dr. Dre cover, the title — and most of the lyrics — of which can’t be repeated here. Transforming its gangsta prose into a sweetly sung ballad proved hilarious and tuneful. He even wrapped it with a genre pose worthy of 50 Cent, though he held it a beat too long.

Hey, he’s new at this.

“Good luck with this one,” Mr. Folds joked to the interpreter for the hearing impaired off to the side before keeping it real.

The busy woman earned her stripes anew when Mr. Wainwright took the stage.

Clad in a cream sports jacket, the singer-songwriter lacked his predecessor’s self-effacing charms.

In fact, Mr. Wainwright seemed a mite pleased with himself, and with his formidable chops as both concocter of baroque pop and fascinating lyricist, it’s easy to understand.

His hour set lacked the orchestral trappings characteristic of much of his recorded work, but his dreamy nasal inflections sounded far more powerful in person.

He started with a new number and scattered a few more through his set, a somewhat selfish gesture given the time restrictions.

The torch singer belted out the more familiar “Art Teacher,” “Vibrate” and “The One You Love” with all the gusto of a lounge singer with a chip on his shoulder. Hearing him cradle a note until he saw fit to let it go was worth the night’s unrelenting humidity.

The stickiness didn’t gum up Mr. Wainwright’s stage manner. An unapologetic dandy, he decorated each song with mannered piano play and gestures, befitting a childhood steeped in opera and Tin Pan Alley lore.

Mr. Wainwright’s sister Lucy Roche came out to supply support vocals on a few tracks, making her the second sister to join the act. Martha Wainwright apparently fled the band to start her own solo career.

While Mr. Folds evoked the class nerd whose gifts transcend his gangly frame, Mr. Wainwright proved all class, all the time. Except, of course, when he offered the obligatory anti-Bush gibe, a mini rant that was as poorly thought out as his music is immaculately detailed.

Otherwise, Mr. Wainwright’s flawless performance was worthy of his extravagant musical gifts, an exquisitely inflected yin to Mr. Folds’ uber-nerd yang.

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