(Photo by Alysse Gafkjen)
Two songs into tonight’s performance, singer-songwriter Ben Folds declares “It’s the first night of our UK tour. This is the night that sucks, and the rest of it will be amazing.” But many false things have been said in jest. When, less than 10 minutes earlier, Folds entered stage left and saluted the crowd with a small glass of liquor, it turns out to be an insouciant entrance that sets the tone for the evening; Folds, with a full band set up of guitar, bass, drums and a musician switching between synths and mouth instruments, effortlessly delivers a wonderful evening of musicianship and humorous storytelling.
On the back of this summer’s What Matters Most – the North Carolina musician’s first album since his 2015 collaboration with yMusic – tonight’s show leans heavily into the new material. We hear no less than eight from the latest album’s ten tracks. ‘Winslow Gardens’ is a galloping melody wherein the blending of guitar, bass, drums, Fold’s irresistible piano and flourishes of bass harmonica is instantly captivating; it’s a tasteful and attractive band dynamic that stays the course.
It’s the newer tracks that generally provide Folds with a platform to flesh out details of their creation and test his chops as a raconteur. He describes leading a songwriting class during the covid lockdown wherein students were encouraged to take inspiration from news headlines. The slower, more contemplative ‘Fragile’ was inspired by a story of a home-invader breaking down in tears when the homeowners caught him in the act. In Folds’ hands – his being impressively literate whereby as much thought is put into the lyrics as the music – the bizarre news story becomes an allegory for dealing with emotional bullies.
Another tune inspired by his temporary pandemic career shift is ‘Kristine From The 7th Grade’; after reaching out to an old acquaintance on social media, Folds was met with an 18 month deluge of links to conspiracy sites. The song’s minor key waltz juxtaposes neatly with light-hearted lyrics wherein Folds appears both amused and incredulous; the line “The misspellings, they must be on purpose/
We went to a good school, Kristine” produces a sizeable laugh from the audience.
A little before tonight’s mid-point, ‘The Ascent of Stan’ is the first tune to incite an audience whoop of recognition at its intro. The frenetic, cascading piano figure is the same spirit animal as Regina Spektor’s ‘Us’ and melds perfectly with lonely, aching harmonica. In fact, it makes a lot of sense that Folds collaborated with Spektor on 2008 single ‘You Don’t Know Me’. Both possess an impressive knack for piano based pop-rock that finds an elusive sweet spot – sometimes within the same song – between emotional drama and wry quirkiness.
An additional joy of tonight’s show is Fold’s recruiting a roughly 1,500 person audience as collaborators. He intermittently looks up from his piano to incite call and response vocals during ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and ‘Not The Same’ sees him inhabit the role of conductor in encouraging some surprisingly effective harmonies from the crowd. It seems that mere proximity to Fold’s effortless musicality has a contagious effect. ‘Landed’ – an old favourite from Folds’ oeuvre – contains that iconic, tumbling piano hook and has Folds hammering away at his instrument while in his go-to power stance above his stool. ‘Way To Normal’ is at once bombastic and pretty with Folds’ masterful, tinkling embellishments filling the space between vocals.
A three song encore eschews any obvious favourites. There’s no ‘Kate’, ‘Smoke’ or ‘Brick’ (the latter was in fact bellowed as a song request at the start of the show but Folds merely teased with a brief, minor key rendition). Though some would dock a few points for Folds’ decision to forgo some of his best loved tunes, such an abundance of musicality and tight collaboration has overcome any laments at their exclusion. There’s a standing ovation from large sections of the audience. If this is a mere warm-up for the rest of the UK tour, Folds and his bandmates might just achieve an impossible level of brilliance.