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Three times a charm at Wiltern

Special to The Times

The unassuming Ben Folds started his set Thursday at the Wiltern LG wryly, walking on stage to the overture from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Rufus Wainwright closed his set that followed with his own wry social commentary, “Gay Messiah.”

But it was opener Ben Lee who proved the real prophet of the evening, when early in his set he noted the wonder of “so much quasi-pop music under one roof.” Indeed, all three showed strong command of various pop idioms, but it was the individual brands of quasi each brought that made it an evening deserving hosannas.

For Australian-born Lee and his band, the main intangible was his natural charm, as inviting as the sunny singer-songwriter forms he favors -- all the better to draw one into the doubts lurking in the shadows of his lyrics.

Folds was the easygoing charmer as well, but his sharp eye as a writer is what took his power-piano-pop beyond the craft that limits so many comparable acts and gave it some claim to actual art. He has far transcended the Billy Joel-without-the-chip-on-his-shoulder tag that follows him, though there are still surface similarities. But even when tapping most obviously ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s pop forms (ably abetted by bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jameison), he added his own winning quirks.

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Few moments were quirkier than when he turned a Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg rap (the title of which we can’t print here) into a melodic pop song, deadpanning the profanity-laden lyrics with his grad-student looks and choirboy voice, to the delight of the enthusiastic young crowd.

With Wainwright it’s more complicated. He still clearly has influences and aspirations well beyond the conventional pop world -- he’s a Broadway musical or opera just waiting to happen.

The last time he played the Wiltern, in 2003, he emphasized the showy dramatic side, whereas this time -- the first of two nights of the triple bill at the theater -- he was at his earthiest.

That’s relatively speaking, of course. Even with a stripped-down three-piece band, he was able to bring out the theatricality of such multilayered songs as the wistful sketch “The Art Teacher” and the emotionally ecstatic “Vibrate.” But just as often he kept things simple, notably in a couple of new country-leaning songs, including “Katonah,” one of several sparkling duets with half-sister Lucy Roche. And even his manner and quips seemed more casual this time.

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There was a missed opportunity in not having Lee, Folds and Wainwright perform together. But Wainwright did join Folds for a version of George Michael’s “Careless Whispers,” making for a quasi-pop epiphany.


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