Put quite simply Ben Folds has made at least 10 of the best songs of all time, songs that everyone on the planet should, no darn it! must be made to listen to at least once. From Angry Dwarfs through Bricks into deep Philosophy and even going Underground the rapid fire piano playing, the quirky wit of the lyrics, the liberal smattering of profanity is surely a must for all music enthusiasts. If Elvis Costello was the “Avenging Geek”, Ben Folds is the Avenging Geeks son who oozes musicality and sticks to his creative muse so rigidly that even with his genius he has managed to evade mainstream success for a quarter of a century. But hold on. What Ben are we seeing tonight? A lot of those 10 must listen to’s are many years ago what about the marauding solo career that while interesting has not managed to excite me in the same way as the first 2 Ben Folds 5 Albums.
Now he arrives in Liverpool replete with classic musicians and an album with long orchestral pieces that I have not been able to listen to all the way through yet. Will our hero deliver? Will he fall on his arse (that will then get kissed)? We have to wait and see as first there was the not so small matter of :
Let’s be honest all I knew of the support act prior to the gig was that her name sounded a bit like Vera Lynne (pointed out by a friend who works at HMV. The big kid!). Lera took the stage with Josh the guitarist and proceeded to play slow, spacious, breathy songs full of the ghost of Duane Eddy playing a twanging guitar from the grave. Lera has an amazing voice that whispered at times and then filled the room with a swirling intensity at peaks in the songs. The half hour set allowed for 6 or so songs the highlight being My Least Favourite Life which gives a hint of the off kilter and strange nature of the lyrics and let’s be honest the whole performance.
I mean where does Lera play to get started? Does haunted chamber pop go down at the youth club (do such things still exist). Well here at the Liverpool Philharmonic she went down just fine with reaction growing after each song and the on stage banter getting more relaxed and funny there was much to enjoy. The climax was a cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire which I doubt has ever sounded quite like this. She slowly eviscerated the song and ground it into the desert dirt until it cried Mercy. All in all a decent start!
So onto Ben Folds or more accurately yMusic the 6 classical Musicians who were to accompany him who took the stage first without the great man. Whilst respecting Ben and the need to follow his muse and push his creative envelope I did wonder how long they would go on for. They were however pleasant enough and it was not long before the man himself appeared. It would be great to describe the wit of Ben Folds and tonight we got plenty of rambling streams of consciousness and at one point a complete halt to proceeding until Ben said “How awkward can I make this”. He is the Stewart Lee of pop! However the introduction to the first song set the surreal comic tone for me “Thanks for coming. Heres a song”.
The first hour was basically the new album and while this can be a slow death for many an audience I think there are plenty of good songs on the album and particularly Capable of Anything and Not a Fan were excellent. Also this was setting the tone for the night that might be described as an evening of beautiful, emotional, contemplative chamber pop. Of course on the sly we all love classical music played live its something to do with wind and string and worked for me. When Ben left the stage again my inner Angry Dwarf was getting anxious that none of my top 10 must hears would be played. Fortunately that was another brief interlude and Ben started mixing it up with older songs and some strange but effective choices like Jesusland which I had not heard for ages. Also Boxings Been Good To Me that he explained was inspired by Mohamed Ali. Then some classics that drew in the yMusic people for some extended and impressive arrangements like Stevens Last Night in Town and Erase Me.. However it was not until late in the show till he pulled out the big guns The Song For The Dumped (Top 10 Alert) was played with an outrageous arrangement and dovetailed into…I kid you not..Hava Nagila done in a very authentic Jewish wedding way. The clarinet came into its own on the Jewish Folk song section and then from 9.43 pm to 9.48 we witnessed what can only be described as Clarinet led, free Jazz. The sheer audaciousness of the performance won me over!
Of course Ben was never going to let us one dimensional fans down and returned solo and asked for requests playing Kate (nearly top 10), Landed (top 10) and Army (top 10).
Did the risks work? Well there is nothing more awkward than your favourite artist telling you to like and buy albums by their friends and telling you to listen to classical music but its so great to hear him ramble on you kind of went with it and I will probably look their stuff up.
Mixing the new and old? I thought the pace of the evening struggled to deliver on the Foldian rituals for the encore like the crowd horn sections on Army and the sing alongs in Kate I was just too relaxed by the first hour and a half to get off my seat. But hey these are minor points in truth Johnny Cash was mentioned more than once from the stage tonight and made me reflect, did he “Walk The Line”? I think he did!