William Shatner, Ben Folds and Joe Jackson: Kelly A. Swift / Retna
Liane Bonin
October 23, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Concert Review: Rocking out with… William Shatner?!?

Ben Folds didn’t just bring one secret weapon to his sold-out show at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theater Thursday night, he brought two: eclectic ’80s rocker Joe Jackson, and the most unexpected king of pop yet, Boston Legal star William Shatner.

At 73, Shatner — who (in)famously mangled ”Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” on his 1968 solo album The Transformed Man and camped it up as a nightclub singer in Priceline.com commercials — seems an unlikely candidate to rock a crowd of shaggy hipsters. But that was before the release of Has Been, Shatner’s new spoken-word album (cowritten/produced by Folds, featuring appearances by Henry Rollins, country singer Brad Paisley, and Aimee Mann, and praised by EW as ”alternately comic and, believe it or not, touching”). Before the L.A. show was over, Shatner not only left the crowd chanting for more, but shocked them into stunned, respectful silence.

Before bringing Shatner to the stage, Folds gave an hour-long solo performance to appease the crowd of young’uns who had yet to be born when Shatner first chewed Star Trek scenery. Eschewing his biggest hit, ”Brick,” Folds previewed material from his upcoming album (including a downbeat number inspired by the late Elliott Smith) and played favorites from his 2001 disc, Rockin’ the Suburbs. The highlight: Folds jumped on top of his piano and conducted the audience for an a cappella verse of Rockin’‘s ”Not the Same,” the soaring ”ah-AH” of the chorus taking on an almost hymnal quality. Considering that Folds squeezed a great album out of a musical punchline like Shatner, it was no surprise he was able to make an audience of slackers sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

After Folds’ set, his fans seemed satisfied to linger just long enough to see Shatner for the camp appeal (”We want Priceline!” some jokingly chanted). And initially, Shatner did not disappoint: Taking the stage, the paunchy actor launched into ”Has Been,” a jokey, spaghetti-western-flavored ditty about fame. Next to Joe Jackson, who provided backing vocals and was dressed sharp in a purple coat and black shirt, Shatner looked out of place in his dignified but very unhip sports jacket and khakis. Reading his lyrics from a music stand, he seemed momentarily out of his element, unsure if the joke was, yet again, on him.

But as he segued into the haunting ”It Hasn’t Happened Yet” (”When is the mountain scaled?/ When do I feel I haven’t failed?”), the crowd abruptly stopped giggling over ”Has Been”’s punny humor. Shatner, never once falling into those crazy…Captain…Kirk pauses that spawned a thousand impressions, read the song’s lyrics with gravel-voiced sadness. It was a transcendent moment, the crowd stunned into silence as Shatner bared his soul, speaking of sleepless nights and nagging fears.

A woman in the crowd screamed ”I love you!” as the song ended, and Shatner smiled faintly. Shedding his jacket, sweat seeping through his shirt, Shatner delivered ”Ideal Woman” and the sharp-tongued Pulp cover ”Common People” to a re-energized crowd. He even performed a solo version of his Henry Rollins collaboration ”I Can’t Get Behind That,” channeling the Black Flag singer’s wrath. Folds, meanwhile, pounded away on drums and keyboards in the background, but it’s doubtful anyone noticed. Captain Kirk was in control.

But the actor’s real rock star moment came at the end of his set. Just before launching into his cover of ”Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the song that made him a laughingstock in 1968, Shatner slowly lifted his arm above his head… and gave the audience the finger. With the crowd roaring its approval, Shatner, Folds, and Jackson played the song straight, turning the Beatles classic into an anthem of personal triumph. As Shatner and Co. left the stage, his new converts stamped their feet, chanting ”One more song!” long after the house lights went up. It seems Shatner is a transformed man at last.

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