Ben Folds brings his brand of pop to UPAC

Ben Folds seems right at home in the quirkier territories of pop music. He has described his music as “punk rock for sissies,” collaborated with partners as diverse as William Shatner, Regina Spektor and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and recorded a melodic, piano-driven cover of a profanity-laced Dr. Dre rap.

“I don’t like to take myself too seriously,” said Folds, who is known for piano-driven rock music with ironic, introspective and occasionally foul-mouthed lyrics. “If something’s kind of funny and informal, I’ll just go with it.”

Folds will perform a solo show at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston tonight, part of a lengthy tour promoting his latest album “Way to Normal,” which was released last September. During some performances on the tour, Folds, who is a classically trained percussionist, will perform with the backing of a full orchestra, including the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra. Sandwiching his solo show in Kingston, for instance, Folds was set to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Thursday and will perform with the Rhode Island Philharmonic on Saturday.

“What I really like about this current tour is going back and forth between the orchestra and solo shows,” Folds said. “That’s a real brain expander, because you couldn’t get any further apart.”

When performing with the orchestras, Folds said he’ll play the same songs as he would if he were performing alone. “It’s a solo show, add 90 people. They’re acting as the rock band.”

Folds came up with the “punk rock for sissies” description when he was trying to get his trio, Ben Folds Five, booked for shows in 1994.

“It really wasn’t very cool to be a piano rock band in the middle of the grunge era,” he said. “We were playing a lot of punk rock clubs, or clubs that had punk rocks bands playing … so we called it ‘punk rock for sissies’ and I think that made it easier for us to get booked. And I think it showed that we didn’t take ourselves too damn seriously.”

Even though he’s playing the same material in dozens of shows this year, he said that each performance is a unique experience for him.

“Music is repetitive, but it doesn’t have to feel repetitive. As Gertrude Stein pointed out, there’s really no such thing as repetition. Because once you’ve done something once, the next time you do it it’s different because you did it once before,” he said.

“There are musical moments that happened and you think, ‘That was amazing; that was unique.’ It’s a combination of the audience, the vibe of the place, the night, just the way it felt.”

Originally more known for lyrics that mixed melancholy and self-reflection with sarcastic humor, Folds said he’s recently become known as “the ‘bitch’ guy” after recording a melodic version of “Bitches Ain’t S–t,” from Dr. Dre’s 1992 album “Chronic.” He also sang the word in “Song for the Dumped” on Ben Folds Five’s 1997 album, “Whatever and Ever Amen,” and his latest album includes an exuberantly upbeat song called “The Bitch Went Nuts.”

Although he wrote the melody and music for his version of Dr. Dre’s song, Folds said he considered his version to be a cover of the original. “I’ve never seen a cent for it because I didn’t ask for it,” he said. The song has generally been retired from live performances, but he said he might perform it in cities where he hasn’t played in a while.

Folds became friends with William Shatner after Shatner recorded vocals for a song from Folds’ experimental solo act, “Fear of Pop,” in 1998. He then produced Shatner’s 2004 spoken-word album, “Has Been,” writing music for Shatner’s monologues.

Folds called “Has Been” “one of the best records I’ve ever had anything to do with.”

“(Shatner) was completely professional, and exciting and excitable and na├»ve and experienced and just perfect to work with. Every take was different. He would do something absolutely f—ed up and different each time. And his voice is so good,” Folds said.

Folds seemed irked by criticism of Shatner’s singing.

“I mean, he’s not singing. We never pretended he sang. He doesn’t think he sings,” Folds said. “There’s no singing on the f—ing record. It’s like a book on tape or something.”

After the release of “Has Been,” Folds and Shatner collaborated again for the 2006 animated film “Over the Hedge.” Shatner co-starred as the voice of Ozzie the opossum, and Folds wrote much of the film’s soundtrack, including a version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” the title track from his 2001 solo album, with vocals by Shatner.

“Rockin’ the Suburbs” was Folds’ first solo record after the breakup of Ben Folds Five. For the album, Folds played all the parts and instruments himself and mixed them into a finished album.

“When you’re going back and forth between those instruments …. you’re literally putting the energy into the band that five people do, so at the end of the day you’ve been five people,” Folds said. “At the end of the day I’m just f—ing wiped out.”

That album was the first time Folds worked with the parody songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic, who directed and appeared in the “Rockin’ the Suburbs” video. Folds, in turn, played piano on Yankovic’s 2003 album, “Poodle Hat.”

“He’s a very thoughtful man,” Folds said. “I just got a birthday card from him.”

When asked for any last words or advice for readers, Folds said “Just tell everyone to floss. You’ll keep your teeth longer that way.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

Paintball pioneers

By Dietrich Knauth

They work with paint and wood and reused materials, and they get a kick out of showing off their creative ingenuity. They also won’t hesitate to lead you out into the woods and shoot you in the neck.

The people at Paintball Sports NY in Plattekill may not be artists in the traditional sense, but they’re in creative overdrive working on stories, missions and new paint-spraying weapons as they gear up for their big scenario game, the Battle For Heartbreak Ridge on Oct. 24 and 25.

“It’s the Woodstock for paintball,” Chris Masi, the field manager and co-owner of Paintball Sports NY, said of the event. Masi, who has played paintball since he was 9 years old, said the sport has grown in popularity despite the challenges of marketing the sport to parents who might consider it dangerous or promoting belligerent behavior.

“People don’t want to see their kids running around the woods with camo gear and weapons,” Masi said. At the Plattekill field, Masi emphasizes the fact that people of all shapes, sizes and skills levels play paintball, including men, women, old and young. He downplays the more jingoistic aspects of the game, disapproving of paintball guns that look like real weapons, and referring to the airguns as “markers” instead of “guns.” He also emphasizes safety, enforcing a masks-on policy in areas where the markers may be fired.

“These things get hot, they get sweaty, they get nasty,” Masi said of the masks, “but this is what keeps you safe for the day.”

The Paintball Sports NY field is 300 acres, and includes 20 courses, Masi said.

“It’s probably the oldest existing paintball field in the world,” said Jerry Braun, the co-owner of the Plattekill property. “A lot of firsts happened on that field.”

Braun, who Masi called the “grandfather of the sport,” is in a position to know.

“I think I played the third game (of paintball) ever,” in the woods of New Hampshire, Braun said. He and his friends wore shop goggles and used oil-based paint guns that were designed for marking cattle and trees that were slated to be felled. They had to use paint thinner to get the paint out of their clothes, a problem that was solved after the introduction of water-soluble paintball ammo in the 1980s.

Shortly after his first game, in 1982, Braun opened the field in Plattekill and organized the first paintball tournament, with $25,000 in prizes, in 1987. Braun also organized the first paintball magazine and the first annual Paintball World Cup, which was held in Plattekill. This year, the World Cup will begin today and will be played in Orlando, Fla.

“We basically developed tournament paintball as it now exists,” said Braun, who sold his stake in the World Cup games in 2005. “The sport grew from being operated out of the back of a van to a multi-million dollar industry. It went from its embryonic stage to maturity in less than a generation.”

Although traditional, informal “pickup” or “woodsball” games are still the mainstay of the game, paintball has evolved into two separate directions, Braun said.

“There’s a difference between the sport and the game,” he said. Competitive tournament paintball, like the World Cup competitions, is a fast-paced game played on a smaller field with smaller teams and less cover. On the other end of the spectrum, are large-scale scenario games, like the Battle For Heartbreak Ridge, with hundreds of participants, lots of different missions and scenarios and some roleplaying.

“It’s almost like Dungeons and Dragons in the woods,” Braun said. “Chris and the group at the field are very adept at those kinds of games.”

“I like the scenario games for the roleplaying parts of it,” said Frank Coppola, who works at the field and goes by the nickname “Colonel Ernie” during the games. It’s almost like two games, he said, one focused on roleplaying and intelligence-gathering and the other on tactical and physical competition.

“You’ve got a lot of different things going on at the same time, so nobody’s bored,” he said. “We keep everyone involved.”

Coppola said he often plays the role of a spy.

“You get to go out and play tricks on people. It’s fun,” he said.

The informal rules of competition also let players try out new weapons and booby traps, like a “flamethrower” that spews yellow ink at a short range and variations on land mines, and mortars. Masi and his team are working on a tank for the big October battle, based on a truck with turret-mounted paintball guns. Masi, who has a degree in computer science and used to work for IBM, is making an interface using a laptop and a wireless Xbox controller that allows the front seat passenger to rotate and fire the weapons.

The event will also feature “celebrity mercenaries,” current and former professional players who can be hired to help one side or the other. Paintball fans might recognize former pro player Greg Hastings, who has released two paintball video games.

Besides running the on-field operations, Masi also coaches the local amateur team that will participate in Division Two of the Paintball World Cup. At 30, Masi said he’s not as physically able to compete, but he hopes to help some of his team move on to become salaried players for a professional paintball team. Paintball Sports Promotions (PSP), which grew out of Braun’s initial efforts and now manages the World Cup and sometimes is featured on the television station ESPN2, has 11 professional teams across the U.S. There are several other pro and semi-pro leagues. A salaried player on a PSP team makes $25,000 to $100,000 annually, Masi said.

“It’s a dream for these kids,” Masi said.

His team, the New York Diesel, practices every weekend in Plattekill. The team includes Bobby Choniuk, 27, of Hopewell Junction; Anderson German, 32, of Middletown; A.J. Bowen, 21, of New Paltz; Kyle Smith, 18, of Monroe; and Anthony Bishop, 18, of New Paltz. Bishop doesn’t compete in matches, but acts as the “pit team,” maintaining equipment and helping players reload their markers during games.

Smith, who got hooked on the game after a birthday party at Paintball Sports NY, said that the team practices as often as they can. “Our weekends are pretty much paintball,” he said.

During a tournament like the World Cup, Bowen said that each player will go through three or four cases of paint. Each case contains 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

“That’s enough to paint a house,” he said.

“It’s a mental game. It’s almost like chess.” Choniuk said. “You have to think fast.”

Communication and coordination are among the persistent challenges, the team said. They’ve developed personal codes to communicate during a match.

“Our team bonds well, on and off the field,” Bowen said.

Keeping teammates motivated and picking each other up is also important.

“You push yourself for your brothers on the team,” said German, who called himself the “old man” of the group.

Competitive paintball is on the rise and is bidding to become an Olympic sport, Masi said. One of the chief obstacles remains visibility for spectators, adapting the game so that it can be enjoyably watched on a television screen. Moving the games out of the woods and onto more open fields was a necessary step in that evolution.

Despite Olympic ambitions, Masi said that less formal games are still the bulk of his business. On weekends, the field is open for walk-in competitions, in which the staff organizes visitors into teams and referees the games. Prices for admission vary depending on how much equipment is rented and how much ammunition is purchased. A day at the field that includes rental of a protective vest, mask, marker, free air refills and 1,000 rounds of ammunition will cost $69.99. The field also opens for private events during weekdays, provided that at least 10 participants show up.

Some celebrities who have showed up to try their hands at paintball include Conan O’Brien, Harrison Ford and Ron Howard, Masi said. The field also hosts corporate and training events, and frequently runs leadership and team-building games for sports teams, including several National Hockey League teams, among them, the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve also had football teams, including the New York Giants, but the hockey players seemed to be more into it, Masi said.

“Compared with the football players, these guys enjoy it and get dirty.”

Masi said that paintball can be fun for people of all careers and ages.

“The lawyer to the guy who flips burgers at McDonald’s, they all come here. It’s kind of a neutral ground.”

“There’s not a lot of sports you can play with your kids,” Masi said, “the first time the son saves his dad, you’ll never hear the end of it.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

Renaissance love

Men in tights loudly hawking pickles and tavern wenches in revealing blouses are common sights at the New York Renaissance Faire, which delights in campy tributes to Renaissance culture.

In a festival that juxtaposes a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with a chainsaw-juggling acrobat, historical purity often takes a back seat to putting on a good show. About 150,000 people come to the Tuxedo grounds in a typical summer, for a day of staged jousts and brawls, bawdy ballads, fake accents, shopping and giant turkey legs. Ongoing stories, centered on the exploits of Robin Hood and the many of Queen Elizabeth, crop up throughout the day, with sideshows and variety acts between.

While most visitors show up in shorts and a T-shirt, some dress the part, braving the August heat in chainmail armor or butterfly wings. For these fairgoers, and the merchants and performers who make the whole exercise work, the fair is more than just a job or a day of fun, its a passion that justifies the dedication of time and energy for whatever pittance they might be paid.

Jay Reeder of Kingston, a tailor who owns the Knightly Endeavors clothing store on Wall Street, has spent the last 13 summers traveling to the fairgrounds for love and for money.

“Mostly love at this point,” he said. Still, he expects about 80 percent of his annual sales to be made at the fair, which is open weekends (and Labor Day) through Sept. 20. Knightly Endeavors has a full-time booth at the fair, but Reeder himself only plans to spend a few weekends there, since his day job as a salesman for Verizon is taking up more and more of his time. He needs the job to get health benefits for his family, including a five-year-old daughter and two stepdaughters.

“The notion that you’re going to be transported for a little while to another place,” is what gives Renaissance fairs their appeal,” Reeder said. “It’s the fantasy that you can be someone else.”

A nerdy introvert can don a doublet and become a rascally pirate, or a shy girl can spend the day as a saucy wench or a fairy princess.

“For some guys, it’s the weekend to see the young ladies dressed a little more provocatively,” Reeder said. “And for some of the girls, it’s the songs, the music and the spectacle. And of course, shopping.”

Also, there’s plenty of chances for flirting amidst the pageantry.

“A pretty pickle to please your palate, princess?” a pickle purveyor asked a female customer one recent Saturday. Once he got her attention, his wordplay turned from alliteration to more suggesting punning, inquiring whether she would prefer length or girth in her gherkin. As he handed over the $2.50 pickle she’d picked from his barrel, the vendor wrapped it in a napkin and announced, with mock gravitas, “I shall even wrap my pickle for thy protection!”

Reeder said he started his business with since-departed partners who shared his love of Renaissance fairs.

“We were looking for a way to justify being at the fair every weekend,” Reeder said. They got an opportunity in 1996, after another vendor dropped out. But before the fair opened, they found themselves far behind schedule in making the clothes, and Reeder, a self-professed “retail geek” who was working at Radio Shack at the time, was pressed into last-minute sewing service.

“I like engineering, and this is just engineering in a different format,” said Reeder, who said he wanted to be an astronaut when he was a child. Now he’s the only one of the original partners still left at Knightly Endeavors. He and one employee make all of the clothing they sell.

Emma Servant of Wallkill — who plays an oft-drunk villager in the fair between singing with an a capella group, The Singing Sirens of Sterling, assisting the joust team and other roles — said that the camaraderie that grows between cast members and the chance to learn unique skills are two of the big perks of working there. Servant has learned singing, acting, improvisation, accents, horseback riding, stage combat and miming at the fair.

“This is one of the most fun jobs I’ve had in my life,” she said.

“It’s different than any other acting job,” said Pearce Larson, a second-year cast member who plays Friar Tuck. “You get to do things like fight with a longspear.”

Most of the cast are from the New York metro area, so they camp near the fairgrounds each weekend. Because weekend rehearsals start about a month before the Ren Fair opens, cast members end up camping together for much of July, August and September. Everyone brings their own tent and air mattress, and there are showers and running water but no electricity. For dinner, the cast divides around a few campfires and has a potluck-style cookout. Returning cast members get first dibs on keeping their tent site from the previous year, and the rest have to fight it out for spaces.

“It’s sort of like adult summer camp,” said Greg Powell, who’s in his fifth year in the cast.

Servant often organizes themed parties to encourage bonding between cast members and to bring up morale after a long, exhausting day. As an example, she mentioned an “anything but clothes” party in which people must come dressed in improvised materials other than articles of clothing, such as a garbage bag.

“I made an outfit out of a pillow case, but I’m really small, so I could do that,” Servant said.

The full-immersion of spending the whole weekend in the woods makes it easy to stay in character for nine or 10 hours a day. Powell said he sometimes had the opposite problem, because he got too used to greeting people by tipping his feathered cap.

“Occasionally, I’d pass people in New York, I’d reach up to tip my hat and realize I wasn’t wearing my hat,” he said. “It turned into a sort of awkward wave.”

Romances often bloom between cast members who spend so much time together. The two improv directors are married, for example, and dating is common.

Powell has dated three fellow cast members over the past five years. He met his girlfriend, SUNY New Paltz grad Polly Solomon, at the fair. This year, Solomon has an aerial silks show based on the tales of Scherezade. Powell said he knew four cast members who proposed marriage during the fair.

“It’s very hard not to fall for the people you’re working with,” said Stacey Jeungling, a 21-year-old college student from Middletown who’s spent the last six summers at the fair. She sold clothing for three years at M’Lady’s Panties, then joined the cast. Besides playing the Mayor’s daughter, she helped make costumes before the fair began and works at the costume shop cleaning the outfits after performances. She said she’s not dating someone from the fair, but has in the past.

“It takes a certain kind of person to strap yourself into the most ridiculous costumes and sleep in the woods for weeks on end,” she said. “This year I went to two weddings between cast members.”

Besides weddings between the cast, the New York Renaissance Faire hosts weddings, too. There’s been one wedding there so far in 2009. Reeder said it’s less of a focus recently, but sometimes it brings in money. He said his store made close to $11,000 making 12 outfits for one wedding party in 2006.

Reeder’s own wedding six years ago was a “fantasy, gothic kind of thing.” He said he worked tirelessly for 10 days sewing costumes, sleeping little and working until the very last minute. Because he made most of the outfits himself, he was able to have more elaborate costumes than if he’d bought them. He estimated the retail cost of the clothing at $20,000, which he said is probably too much for a reasonable person to spend.

“To me, it seems like a waste of money,” he said.

And money, although it’s not the whole reason Reeder does what he does, can’t be ignored. This year, he canceled his shop’s booth at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair because he calculated that he would probably lose money. A typical women’s outfit from his booth costs $140 to $200 and a men’s outfit costs $110 to $185, numbers that are hard to ask in the current economic climate. The fair charges a 10 percent commision on items sold there.

And even though fair season would seem like a good time for Reeder to enjoy his hobby, he said he’s often working too hard to participate. “The horrible reality of it is that … during season you’re working like a demon to get things done,” he said.

For the performers, it’s not exactly all play and no work either. Servant said she’s paid $65 for a 10-hour day, and a good number of the cast are unpaid volunteers. Stage fighters get slightly more, but only the jousters, who put themselves in harm’s way by fighting on horseback, and the full-time managers and creative directors make decent money.

It’s also physically demanding, with performers fighting and acting in several shows in high heat and uncomfortable costumes — corsets are practically a requirement for the women. Larson, who played a one of Robin Hood’s yeomen last year, said he was glad to trade his thong and tights for the more comfortable robe of Friar Tuck.

And a lot of work goes into keeping those costumes clean. The more elaborate the costumes, the dirtier it will get as the Fair wears on.

“You can’t really wash velvet and brocade in a washing machine,” Jeungling said. “It’s a lot of Febreze and beating it with a stick when they get dusty.”

At least their undergarments are relatively clean – there are backups to be worn while the first pair are thrown in the washer.

But Servant said its easy to keep the troubles in perspective when she sees regular patrons going all out for a day at the fair. “They pay hundreds of dollars for costumes and hundreds of dollars in passes,” to do what she gets paid to do.

“As grueling as the day can be … you keep coming back,” Servant said. “There’s a deep-seated love you just can’t shake.”

“It’s not something you do for the pay,” Powell said. “Everyone who’s there is there for the whole love affair.”

And then there are the smaller perks, too. “I’ve got a Facebook (page) full of kickass pictures,” Powell said.

Published by the Daily Freeman

Bomb squad blew up violin, case

NEW PALTZ – The “suspicious device” that temporarily shut down the New Paltz Trailways bus station Thursday was a traveler’s violin, New Paltz police said Friday.

Police said the device, which was blown up by a bomb squad, turned out to be “neither hazardous nor intentionally left there,” and closed their investigation.

Police responded to the bus station at 3 p.m. Thursday and found a piece of white tubing approximately two feet long, that was capped at both ends with wires protruding from it. The bus station and surrounding area was immediately evacuated, and the state police bomb squad was called to the scene. Police X-rayed and then blew up the violin case.

Based on evidence recovered from the device after it was “neutralized,” New Paltz detectives working with the FBI determined that it was a musical instrument called a WiplStix, a type of traveling violin. The instrument uses four colored strings, some of which were protruding from the PVC piping when the item was found by police.

“In the world we now live in, pipes with wires sticking out of them will almost always cause the precautionary response we implemented,” said New Paltz police Lt. Steven Osarczuk. “When it comes to our residents, we’re always going to err on the side of caution.”

On Friday, police said the owner of the WiplStix contacted them after hearing about the incident. He said he had the violin in a white PVC carrying case and had it strapped to his backpack as he was exiting a Trailways bus from New York City to New Paltz. He told police that the PVC pipe must have fallen off the backpack as he was exiting the bus.

The WiplStix weighs one pound, one ounce, and costs about $300, according to the manufacturer’s Web site.

“Y’all make a big deal about things up there,” said Bill Whipple, who manufactures the instruments in North Carolina. He said police called him during the investigation.

Whipple has been making the instruments for about 10 years, and this is the first time one has been treated as an explosive, although people have joked about its resemblance to a pipe bomb.

“As kind of a joke, people ask me ‘Can I take this thing on a plane?'” Whipple said. “I’ve taken them on planes and never had any problems.”

Whipple said he requested that the remains of the violin be sent to him, but police told him its pieces were scattered over a dozen boxes.

“They blew it to smithereens,” Whipple said.

Although Whipple said the police officers he talked to “definitely had a sense of humor” about the incident, Osarczuk said the alarm it caused was no laughing matter.

“I think the manufacturer should seriously reconsider how he packages these instruments in the future,” he said.

Whipple said that he’s considering putting up a memorial Web page devoted to “old number 465,” referring to the instrument’s number.

Source: The Daily Freeman