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With Ben Folds, deadpan delivers

Ben Folds
With Corn Mo
At: Avalon, Saturday

Ben Folds is a performer who has always seemed bemused by his own abilities. He is, by rock and pop music standards, practically a piano virtuoso, but his deadpan never betrays either the difficulty of what he's playing or the joy of performance that goes along with it. It's as though Folds doesn't know how he does it, it's just something that he does.

That's not an indication of apathy or humorlessness, just focus, and at Avalon on Saturday, Folds was the musical equivalent of a comedian who doesn't laugh at his own jokes. While his musical wanderings keep early comparisons with Joe Jackson relevant, Folds seems to have more and more in common with Randy Newman, balancing ironic commentary with occasionally devastating observation. Had Newman been more of a rock 'n' roll baby, he too might have performed piano-ballad versions of Dr. Dre songs.

After kicking things off with another cover, a blazing version of the Cure's ''In Between Days," Folds touched on a little more than half of his new CD, ''Songs for Silverman," while playing a fairly representative cross-section of his catalog. The new songs tended to be more rambling and wayward than his early material, but they came together nicely, with ''Bastard" in particular jelling beautifully in a chorus that featured lovely harmony vocals by bassist Jared Reynolds.

Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson didn't attempt to duplicate the jazz-punk rhythm attack of the Ben Folds Five, providing an equally versatile but sometimes subtler pop backing. As strong as they were, the evening's highlight saw Folds alone onstage for a five-song set. He played ballads such as ''Brick" and rippers like ''Underground," enlisting the crowd to mimic the horn parts in ''Army" but otherwise leaving no sonic holes where drums or bass would have even been necessary.

Like a one-man Tenacious D without the delusions of grandeur, or an accordion-playing Meat Loaf with self-esteem issues, Corn Mo started the night off with a hilarious 40-minute set of dorky adolescent anthems interspersed with stories about time travel and his failure to understand how to entertain groupies properly.

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