Ben Folds is a consummate master of contrast. Equally adept at playing plaintive ballads as he is at belting out looney tunes rock and roll, he comes across as a younger, only slightly less grizzled Randy Newman. Folds’ lyrics certainly have the same bite, and are similarly coupled with ear-worm melodies that belie the sardonic nature of the subject matter hiding in plain sight. So, during this evening’s lengthy set the audience is treated to particularly poetic versions of ‘Still Fighting It’, a beautiful tableau of a father-son relationship, and ‘Fred Jones Part 2’, another of Folds’ character studies whose portrayal of a disenfranchised ex-employee railing at an unjust world feels painfully apropos in our our current political climate.
One of the most appealing qualities of the performance is the way in which Folds never plays songs the way they are on record: his ability to add flourishes, grace notes and improvisations make him a very engaging live performer, as is the way he uses (or abuses) the piano itself as rhythmic accompaniment, thumping the keyboard with his elbow or using the pedal as a bass drum. There are moments when we catch flashes of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, particularly when Folds stands up to give himself more leverage, and there are echoes of early Elton John – yes, really, and no, this is not a bad thing. In-between there are snatches of Hair Metal (his former band Ben Folds Five were renowned for spot-on parodies with titles such as ‘The Ultimate Sacrifice’), freeform Jazz and, during the barnstorming swing of ‘Steven’s Last Night In Town’, a long sequence when Folds goes all Keith Moon on an ever-increasing drum kit whose individual components are brought out by stagehands.
Folds’ intention, it seems, is to give tonight’s audience a rollicking good time. Unlike some other artists, he develops a rapport from the outset, engaging with the crowd with several witty anecdotes between tracks, particularly the rambling story before ‘Uncle Walter’ that appears to be heading in a much racier direction than it actually does. Folds comes across as both funny and sweet, even though he is frequently potty-mouthed: ‘All U Can Eat’, a deep cut from the rare Sunny 16 EP, essentially built around cynicism and cussing, is balanced by a mournful melody. ‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’, whose faux theatrics mocks the hissy fits of back-in-the-day artists like Limp Bizkit, remains infectiously entertaining, especially when Folds transforms the outro into a singalong dum-diddle-um-dum chorus from an imaginary children’s musical. As expected, there are many of these a cappella moments, some of which Folds orchestrates through splitting the audience into four-part harmonies (not many gigs, one imagines, will feature the instruction, “People over here, take the minor third”) and some of which are completely spontaneous. Consequently, ‘Not The Same’ is a glorious wall of sound, the audience just about pull off Regina Spektor’s parts on ‘You Don’t Know Me’, and the vocal horns on closing song ‘Army’ seem to surprise Folds himself – what a wonderful feeling it must be to have a group of strangers sing your own songs back to you with such élan. As communal experiences go, this one is pretty special: as aforementioned, Folds is a master of contrast, and when those individual parts are rubbed together, they shine all the more brightly. Ross Thompson
Photos by Chris Flack