Ben Folds + yMusic | 11.17.15

live Ben-Folds

Always a consummate performer, sometimes serious, but often cloaked in various grades of aloofness and smart-assery, this time Folds looked, sang, and acted as if he’d had a revelation.

 

 

 

The Pageant, St. Louis

Dutch singer-songwriter Dotan opened the evening with a short, but heartfelt and engaged set. He sang in a clear, soulful voice, played acoustic guitar, and occasionally banged on a small drum to his side. This, along with a bandmate accompanying on guitar and backing vocals, lent the sound a fuller presence. Think a slightly less hushed take on Kings of Convenience. Dotan was affable, told anecdotes, and most importantly, showcased very good songs that did a noticeably fine job of capturing the ears and attention of a sold-out crowd that was eager for the main event.

At 9 o’clock sharp, New York–based chamber ensemble yMusic took the stage and played a cover of a Son Lux song, which served as a prelude to the main set. This was in addition to several of their own pieces they’d perform over the course of the night. Ben Folds soon emerged, looking trim, beardy, and animated. Folds was typically talkative throughout the entire show, riffing and telling stories in between songs while sipping on a glass of whiskey. His introduction to new track “Phone in a Pool,” about throwing his Blackberry in a hotel pool in Los Angeles, and having Kesha dive into the deep end and fish it out for him, was inspired. He fielded way-too-early calls for live goofball staple “Rock This Bitch” with grace and good humor, spinning it into a silly yet charismatic and vigorous chamber rock jam session.

Folds and yMusic displayed a skillful, dynamic, often playful symbiosis. Folds was far less a bandleader or dictator than an equal partner. Several times throughout the night, he stopped to gaze at various band members’ performances with unabashed enthusiasm and admiration. The songs from Folds + yMusic’s new album So There (New West) were arresting, flowing with energy even greater than the studio versions. The steadily increasing tempo and swirling woodwinds and strings made “Capable of Anything” a highlight, as was the unguarded, apologetic, slowly building “I’m Not the Man.”

Tracks from Folds’ solo career, as well as Ben Folds Five tracks, slotted in seamlessly. The chosen tunes all made stellar use of the horns, cello, violin, woodwinds, and occasional drums, in yMusic’s versatile arsenal. “Mess” tapped in to Reinhold Messner’s widescreen atmosphere; “Evaporated” used Hideaki Aomori’s bassoon to turn an already resigned song into a deeply affecting coda. The inherent cacophony of “Erase Me,” the lead track from 2013’s Ben Folds Five reunion album, had its clattering cohesion amplified even further, to great effect. Having a phalanx of capable multi-instrumentalists alongside him gave “Effington” a pomp and charge that exceeded that of the kinetic original version. A highlight of the evening was “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” a song whose studio take already featured clarinet, trumpet, and violin. Here, Folds and yMusic transformed it into a big-band stormer, including impressive Gene Krupa–style drumming, and jazzy, flowing brass and clarinet solos.

The encore was short, but featured multiple crowd-participation segments, including the by-now traditional “Army” trumpet solo substitute audience singalong. Closing out the show was a phenomenal, rafters-filling rendition of “Not the Same,” which ended in Folds sitting on top of (and subsequently leaping over) his upright piano, leading the rapt house in three-part harmony, as well as in an a capella, follow-the-leader improv section, where he played Freddie Mercury at Live Aid to his assembled legion of appreciative piano-pop nerds.

Perhaps most notable was Ben Folds’ demeanor. Always a consummate performer, sometimes serious, but often cloaked in various grades of aloofness and smart-assery, this time he looked, sang, and acted as if he’d had a revelation. It was like he had finally found an outlet for the sounds he’s been hearing in his head for the past 20 years. Nothing about the evening’s performance was perfunctory, nor was any aspect of it neutered, diminished, or compromised; instead, it was evolved. I’ve seen Folds eight times, in various incarnations, since 1999, and without a doubt this was the most fun I have ever witnessed him having on stage. More often than not, he had a massive grin on his face. He was loose and engaged, showered his stage-mates with kudos, and appeared, both in look and in song, as if he’d had an ancient layer of scuffed-up protective coating scraped off him.

This was a remarkable, memorable set for newbies and longtime Folds fans alike. The partnership with yMusic has clearly been a fruitful one, and if shows such as this are any indication, it’s only the beginning of a productive, engaging new chapter in Mr. Folds’ already fascinating, half-underground/half-overground career. | Mike Rengel

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