Live: Ben Folds, Girl Talk, and more at Duke University’s Last Day of Classes, April 22, 2009

Duke’s annual LDOC (Last Day of Classes) celebration has always been intentionally under publicized. Technically, the event is for the students, so the musical performances are rarely promoted off-campus by the artists or the university.

However, this year’s edition of the notoriously lawless event quickly became the worst-kept secret in the area when local hero Ben Folds was booked to headline. Folds once attended Duke for a semester, had his first paying gig there, and is a legend in nearby Chapel Hill and Carrboro. From what I could discern, hundreds of non-students arrived at various times of the day.

Folds and 3 other main stage acts held a fast and furious 5-hour show on Duke’s west quad, while other acts performed on the plaza by the student center during the afternoon. There was plenty of good music to be had as students buzzed about, some actually attending classes, others carrying containers full of unrecognizable fluids or cans of cheap beer.

Makepeace BrothersThe Makepeace Brothers started things off just after 1 PM as stiff gusts of wind enveloped the lunchtime crowd. Hailing from Los Angeles, the band was farther from home than any other act, but their mellow, acoustic roots-folk-rock was a great way to start the day. With vocal harmonies reminiscent of folk greats like Simon and Garfunkel, and a funky miked-up box-like contraption that provided rhythmic weight, the trio presented a shuffling, sunny style that is uplifting and positive.

Because it was free and a college gig, I had tempered my expectations of production and sound quality for the event, but was pleasantly surprised at how well everything functioned. Despite rowdy college kids – some of who were “event staff” – and relentless winds during the day, the crew and bands did a wonderful, timely job of keeping the day organized and moving.

After a lengthy break that featured some unremarkable DJ work from someone named Nate, a trio of “Battle of the Bands” acts performed. Yet another in a long line of annual traditions between Duke and neighboring UNC, the competition has proven healthy for the live music scene and, as a result, LDOC.

First, Chapel Hill’s Nomad Kings played a set of widely varying music that wasn’t the most technically proficient, but it at least covered a lot of musical ground. Looking every bit like a typical frat-house band, the quartet was joined by local rappers Toon and L@w for an hour that included everything from original songs to a cover of The Raconteurs’ “Level” to inspired hip-hop lyricism.

L@w & Nomad KingsMuch to my relief, the rhymes were well-written and performed with joy. Toon and L@w have distinctly different styles, but drew energy from one another to highly entertaining effect. The pairing of the two MCs with the somewhat amateurish quartet is still a mystery to me, but at least Durham and Chapel Hill worlds are colliding for the greater good.

Duke’s Soulless Dogs were up next, and their name belies their tight, jazzy sound. They were the most practiced band of the day up to that point, and their catchy original jams are under the influence of Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan (whose “Kid Charlemagne” they covered), and the blues. Their cover of “Sky Is Crying,” featuring a fellow Duke student sitting in on harmonica, nodded directly to the days when they were known as the Soulless Dogs Blues Band.

Drummer Rob DiMauro impressed me as an absolute monster performer, and vocalist/keyboardist Ben Shelton has an effervescent stage presence that makes every song stand out. Completed by the studious blues guitar of George Dyer and Spike Brehm’s precisely engineered bass, the quartet delivered an energetic hour of music that was worthy of the main stage.

The final plaza stage band was Chapel Hill’s The Hugenots, who attracted a devoted group of fans. This nattily-attired quartet used their 1950s and 1960s-influenced pop to win Battle of the Bands this year, and they attracted a numerically modest but devoted group of fans.

HugenotsThe band has a poster-ready look and affable stage presence, but the music is a bit insubstantial for me. The charm of their Beatle-bred retro pop hooks and indie-meets-trendy-meets-Buddy Holly-style wore thin after about 30 minutes, and I prepared to “rage the quad” for the 6 PM main stage start.

Duke student Mike Posner got the quad packed and pumped up for his brief set, which featured fellow Michigander and frequent collaborator Big Sean. Posner, who has found his star rising rapidly as of late, gave his friends and fans a concentrated dose of his most popular songs.

Posner’s breezy rasp of a voice is well-suited to the hip-hop, pop, and electro realms in which he travels, and he’s got enough of a way with words to get his choruses and hooks lodged firmly in the listener’s ear. The music has traits that will undoubtedly endear Posner to the mainstream crowd, and they are found in his mildly amped-up dance interpretation of ELO’s “Evil Woman,” his ready-made collegiate drug anthems “Drug Dealer Girl” and “Smoke and Drive,” and the tenderhearted “Still Not Over You.”

Posner showed his age a bit, reacting a bit unprofessionally when informed that he needed to wrap up his performance, shilling for more time onstage, and failing to exit the stage even as the crew started transitioning for the next act. Much like his music, Posner just needs a little more time. His talent is undeniable no matter what kind of music you prefer.

One of the bullet points of LDOC 2009 was “going green,” and while Posner did his part with “Smoke and Drive,” the more practical aspect of the initiative was lost on most students and Gregg Gillis. Gillis just happens to go by the stage name Girl Talk.

Girl Talk’s set provided one of the more ironic visual juxtapositions of the day, as students dressed in green message-imparting LDOC t-shirts cavorted on the stage while Gillis threw confetti. Rolls of toilet paper were rapidly removed from their natural state by two masked men, sending streams of paper over the crowd, into the trees, and on stage. Green, indeed.

In regard to Girl Talk’s performance, I feel I should let it be known that I have no problem with sample-based music. In fact, Avalanches’ Since I Left You album is still one of the touchstone releases of my personal existence. Girl Talk, however, left me wanting more creativity.

Girl TalkI understand what he’s doing, and there are a whole lot of people who are madly in love with his mashups for good reason. I’ve just gone in a different direction within that musical realm, and this show just seemed a bit canned. I’m not totally evil, I promise. I can appreciate an artist who utilizes everything from Metallica to Roy Orbison, Journey, Outkast and Kelly Clarkson while creating a wild dance party. I also admire his brazen use of music from all over the map. I’m just in a different space.

Up next were Gym Class Heroes, a group that formed in 1997 – a time at which most of the LDOC attendees were approximately 10 years old. The New York band managed to grasp the leftover energy from Girl Talk’s set and channel it into a more personable form. I heard bits of rock, funk, reggae, hip-hop, and pop throughout their sound, but the end result wasn’t as good as a combination of those elements can be.

The band won Best New Artist at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, and they’ve got that mass-appeal sound that always seems a little watered down to me. They take their rock and roll ham-fisted and their hip-hop on the friendly side, making for an oddly mundane combination. In any case, it’s just the kind of sound an event like LDOC calls for. The kids had fun, and that’s what LDOC is really all about.

QuadThere’s little doubt that the music was secondary to most in attendance, with drinking and dancing closely tied for first. This attitude fostered plenty of walkouts for Ben Folds’ relatively sedate set. His music is so much about reflection, listening, and emotion, and a lot of people were in no such mood when 9:30 rolled around. “This concert sucks, I’m leaving” proclaimed a nearby scholar after a handful of songs.

When Folds’ quintet took the stage, there was more breathing room in the quad than there had been all night, and I didn’t mind it at all. Still, it was a sizable crowd and the devoted among them hung on every note. To do so, they had to be fairly close to the stage – the weak sound system made for a passable experience up close, but an intolerably muted, distant listen from anywhere behind the mix position.

Folds has a huge stash of poignant lyrics to apply to various situations, and some of the lyrics are especially appropriate in the university setting, like the ones in “Bastard” (“the more you know/you know you don’t know shit”) and “Still Fighting It.” In the latter, Folds belted out the lyrics with more vigor than any other song of the night – “Everybody knows/It sucks to grow up.”

The show was weighted with favorites towards the end, rewarding those who stayed upright long enough to see the whole performance. “Bastard,” “Still Fighting It” and “Annie Waits” highlighted the first half of the show, and the ballad “Landed” occupied the halfway point. From then on, Folds led the band through a career-spanning selection of songs that was all any fan could expect, setlist-wise.

Ben FoldsThis second half run included gems from the Ben Folds Five days (“Kate,” “Fair,” “Brick,” and the beloved “Army”), favorites from his first non-Five album Rockin’ the Suburbs (the title track, “Zak and Sara” and “Not the Same”), and the strongest cuts from his latest album Way To Normal (the brilliant “Effington” and “You Don’t Know Me”). Before his humorously restrained, show-closing cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” Folds explained the song choice: “I think there are enough drunk people here to appreciate this song.” When you’re right, you’re right.

It’s obvious from the history of LDOC’s headliners that the size and quality of the event will fluctuate. 2003 and 2004 saw Wilco and Kanye West on campus, while subsequent years included relatively bland headliners like Collective Soul, Guster, and Jason Mraz. The Roots in 2008 and this year’s lineup restored the luster to the event, so much that the glow extended well past the Gothic towers of Duke’s campus.

The newly 7-year-old event finds itself in a devil of a financial predicament after this year’s edition, and I’m guessing that students and curious locals like myself can expect fewer or at least a more monetarily modest selection of acts next year. 2009′s LDOC currently holds the title as the best Duke campus concert that few will remember, and it will be interesting to see what effect it has on the future expansion or shrinkage of LDOC.

-Girl Talk photo by J Caldwell. See his whole Girl Talk LDOC gallery!
-All other photos by the Messenger. Check out the whole, unedited, very amateur gallery of LDOC photos.

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