When you see some contemporary artists advertise the fact that they’re going to playing with a full symphony orchestra, many peoples reactions (rightly or wrongly) will probably involve the words “pretentious” and… well, let’s just say the other word probably wouldn’t be complementary. A lot would depend on who the artist was, of course. For Ben Folds, working and performing with orchestras is something he has been doing for around a decade now and fans of Folds already know just how much his music can be augmented by an orchestral backing as well as how dedicated he is to promoting the cultural virtues of a city having its own orchestra. This evening he stated, with only a little humour intended, that those cities who don’t are usually “shitty places”. That description is pretty much the absolute opposite of The Sage in Gateshead, a gorgeous building looking over the Tyne across to Newcastle. It is, without hyperbole, probably the most beautiful, aesthetically, and acoustically perfect place I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing live music in. The kind of place that, even though I live approximately 350 miles away, I would seriously consider doing the travelling time just to watch artists I love playing in a magnificent hall with a very appreciative audience. Maybe it was just the fact that it was a room full of Ben Folds fans who (OK, I’m biased) are very cultured, cool people, but an audience full of patrons who are quiet in all the right places and burst into rapturous applause when the artist has finished… well, they’re my kind of gig-goers.
Tonight’s show was a rather special one. I’d seen Ben live five times before tonight, but this evening’s performance topped the lot. It is the first time I’d experienced him with an orchestra, although watching the excellent DVD with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra from 2005 gave me a little hint of what we may expect. Despite the high bar set by that DVD performance, Folds and the Royal Northern Sinfonia exceeded any expectations I had. We really couldn’t have asked for a better performance or a better set list this evening, although I have to admit that my heart sank a little when he opened with “Effington”, one of my least favourite songs from my least favourite Folds album, “Way To Normal”. I needn’t have worried; it was actually an excitingly arranged orchestral version which made me appreciate the track a whole lot more by the time it was over. A sumptuous “Smoke”, from Ben Folds Five’s “Whatever And Ever Amen” followed and, already, I was captivated by the full, magnificent sound of the assembled musicians. Folds introduced the next song, “Jesusland”, by explaining that, although he wasn’t particularly religious, he couldn’t help thinking that Jesus would be pissed with everything that was being done in his name in bible belt America and that his song was an apology and rebuttal of those things. Ben’s voice, although it wavered very slightly from time to time, was in great form, sounding even more poignant out there on its own on that song, without any backing vocals or harmonies.
“Picture Window”, arguably the stand-out song from “Lonely Avenue”, the album Ben made with Nick Hornby, sounded particularly good with an orchestral backing and then it was time for Folds to introduce the main reason for the tour, which was his “Concerto For Piano And Orchestra”. Ben had been commissioned to write this piece for a ballet and, for a year, had given himself the goal of completing ten seconds of score each day. The resulting piece of work is probably the best thing that Ben has done since “Songs For Silverman”, back in 2005. Folds’ Concerto is a wondrous, captivating piece which seems to encapsulate the spirit of American classical music of the early 20th Century, via Gershwin, Copeland and some of the big, romantic movie soundtracks, such as Max Steiner’s “Gone With The Wind”. There were elements of jazz, classical, blues, plenty of space for virtuoso piano performances from the composer himself and even a mobile phone ringtone section to bring it right up to date. The whole venue seemed captivated by the performance, seemed, at one point, over eager to show appreciation (with a small burst of applause in between movements which seemed to amuse Folds) and gave the piece an extremely appreciative response afterwards. Some popular artists have dabbled in classical works, but Folds is one of the first artists I have heard who sounds completely convincing in the genre, such is his talent in and understanding of composition and structure. After such a momentous, exhausting piece, it was left up to “Steven’s Last Night In Town”, the swing-jazz influenced track from “Whatever And Ever Amen” (which Ben joked was about his good friend Stephen Hawking) to send the audience out to the interval with a smile on our faces.
The second half began with a truly wonderful rendition of “Zak And Sara” from Folds’ exceptional first solo album “Rockin’ The Suburbs” and continued in the same vein with a fabulous performance of “Landed”, the arrangement of which was bold enough to avoid using the drum kit, with the orchestra providing all of the dramatic tension, to striking effect. Ben then played a fan request, because of a question he was asked. There is a track on “Rockin’ The Suburbs” called “Fred Jones (Part Two)” and the composer was asked was there a part one. It turns out that part one is actually “Cigarette” from “Whatever And Ever Amen” and the lyrics for that piece were lifted in their entirely from a bizarre punctuation-less article in a local newspaper which probably should never have got past the Editor. Ben’s solo rendition of “Cigarette” was sublime and it naturally led on to its sequel which featured some gorgeous pizzicato on the stringed instruments during the piano solo. I’m going to have to apologise to Ben now, because he asked nobody to tell, but he then played us a recording on his mobile phone of a piano and voice composition that his daughter, Gracie, had recorded. I can understand why because it was a rather classy piece and it sounds as if she somewhat of a chip off the old block; for fourteen years old, the girl definitely has talent. Give it a few years and I imagine we will be seeing quite a lot of Gracie Folds (if, indeed, that is what she will call herself). This heart-warming interlude provided a natural introduction to the touching song he wrote for her and it was a suitably loving performance.
It was then audience participation time, with the Gateshead crowd being asked to do the choral harmonies on “Not The Same”, one of the many superb tracks on his peerless solo début, ending up with Ben conducting the audience to great comedic effect. You could feel the emotion during the fans’ favourite, “Brick” and then, after a song with such a heavy subject matter, there was a little light relief when some of the audience (no doubt Folds gig veterans) shouted for “Rock This Bitch”, which is a cue for an improvised song. Ben used the lyrics from a piece of paper that somebody found in the Sage, which turned out to be a transcription of The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon”. Using a melodic motif provided by the lead violin, Ben worked out the chord structure on the spot, gave the different parts of the orchestra harmony pieces and counter melodies and, within minutes, we were hearing quite a spectacular improvised composition, with Folds singing Ray Davies’ classic lyrics over the top. For a “Rock This Bitch” moment, it was really quite powerful and impressive stuff, demonstrating Ben’s quick, prodigious musical mind and the unquestionable ability of the many wonderful musicians of the Royal Northern Sinfonia. The bluesy opening piano riff introduced “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” and we were treated to a rip-roaring reading of the opening track from Ben Folds Five’s second album.
Gateshead were lucky enough to receive two encore performances, which were both probably planned in advance of course, but I’m sure the standing ovations didn’t hurt. The first encore was one of the greatest love songs ever written, “The Luckiest”, which is one of those truly annoyingly brilliant pieces that has the power to bring me to tears every time I hear it. Tonight was no exception and, with the orchestra backing Ben’s sincere vocals, it made it even more difficult to choke back the emotion and salt water. Another standing ovation later and Folds returned to give us mindbogglingly brilliant solo renditions of “Philosophy” (from Ben Folds Five’s superb eponymous début) and “Army” (from the vastly underrated “The Unauthorised Biography Of Reinhold Messner”), with the audience, again, being asked to provide the backing to Ben’s piano but, this time, taking the parts played by the brass instruments on the original.
It was an exhilarating but all too premature end to the evening. I, and I’m sure that the majority of the audience, could happily have sat there for another hour in the company of Ben Folds and that assembly of wonderful musicians. During his set, Folds implored us to support symphony orchestras and praised both their art and the individual selflessness of the players in the orchestra who often go uncredited; this speech hit the nail on the head on why it is different and acceptable for him to do something like this, why tonight’s show wasn’t an act of narcissism or vanity, like it may have been for other, lesser, musicians who simply want to hear a full orchestra playing their songs. Folds cares. He really, really cares. His music has always been intertwined with orchestral arrangements, he’s a cross-over artist, embracing and bridging music from all genres and eras, with his tracks often being an amalgam of influences from multiple sources. He’s a qualified ambassador for a cause he knows and eminently believes in and, given that tonight’s exceptional performance to thousands of adoring fans is being repeated night after night to audiences across the world, he may just be one of the most powerful ambassadors symphony orchestras will ever have in the 21st century.
Andy Sweeney, 12th July, 2014.