by Ryan Wasoba
Ben Folds with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Powell Hall November 6, 2012
As he sat behind Powell Symphony Hall's grand piano and sang the phrase "Kiss my ass goodbye," the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra echoed his melody with trumpets and Ben Folds smiled the smile of a boy who was getting away with something. Fantasy sequences in film are frequently scored by a lush, orchestral arrangement, and the joke comes in the pairing of something so insignificant with something so dramatic. For Folds, who learned music by playing percussion in orchestras, this is the dream: Playing his own material, both his precious moments slow jams and his trailer trashing piano-as-a-weapon cuts, with the sonic and moral support of an entire orchestra. Some of his songs were tailored perfectly to the high class setting and some were so inappropriate they seemed necessary. As such, Ben Folds' performance last evening was both outstanding and inherently hilarious.
Ben Folds has employed strings in his recordings for over a decade, so his worldwide symphonic takeover mission is a more logical rock/classical hybrid than, say, The String Quartet Tribute To Muse. Most impressive is the way Folds utilizes the orchestra's possibilities. Yes, there was some effective, if standard, gussying up of ballads. "Gracie", his ode to his daughter, was particularly touching with some heartstring tugging from the SLSO. On the other hand, some subtly jarring violin strains brought out the ugliness of "Brick" -- a welcome surprise for a song that seems like it might facilitate a predictable arrangement. The Ben Folds Five rocker "One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces" became a brassy Bond movie chase scene and the Effingham-inspired "Effington" carried hints of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story in its playfulness, with xylophone stabs serving as punchline indicators.
Live, Folds' voice is distinctive, and his execution practically faultless; if not for the sibilant noises of the woman mouthing along with every word behind me, I could have mistaken bits of the show for a recording. What makes him such a powerful performer is his ability to connect on a personal level with each member of a sold-out audience (2,689 people at Powell not including standing room -- thanks, Google!) while sharing the stage with fifty-ish other musicians.
In two instances, Folds became conductor of the audience by assigning melodies to different sections and summoning their entry at his will. He truly got carried away directing the crowd on "Not The Same"; as a temporary choir member, it was a blast. The buzz was so palpable it survived the segue into a power ballad about abortion. Mostly, he achieved intimacy by giving long-winded introductions to his songs. I now know more about Ben Folds than I know about people I've known for years. You know, like the time he caught pneumonia on tour and played shows with a 104 degree fever and collapsed when he got off stage so the next time he was on tour and felt sick he immediately saw a doctor who gave him Codeine so he took it and didn't feel anything so the next night he took too much and felt loopy and wrote part of the song "Cologne" while he was improvising on stage and thinking about that one astronaut who drove to Florida wearing a diaper. I remember fewer details about my own prom.
My main complaint about Ben Folds -- particularly his post-Five career -- is his tendency to pen character songs whose choruses are little more than a person's name. I suppose I felt this writing technique minimized the impact of the song, but it all kind of clicked for me last night. Folds consistently draws enormous conclusions from minuscule events, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra helped blow songs about singular people, like "The Ascent Of Stan," entirely out of proportion -- which is exactly where Folds' songs need to exist. If Bruce Springsteen portrays the plight of the working man by putting their struggles into rock songs, Ben Folds offers romanticized significance to the mundane details of modern conflicted post-everything life, even if he needs a God-damn orchestra to do so.
Notes and video from a previous orchestra appearance on the next page. Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias I think Ben wrote his best songs with Ben Folds Five; maybe something about the rock band limitation made him thrive. Taking those songs to the orchestra was almost too good.
Overheard "Ohhh, this is such a sweet song" when Ben began "Gracie"
Random detail Powell was the perfect venue for the event, and Folds fans who would otherwise be more likely to see him at a rock club seemed to enjoy the opportunity to play dress up.
By The Way I forgot that Ben Folds is actually kind of famous. Like, selling out Powell Hall in a heartbeat famous. He joked about how if he had more fame, he'd have his own VH1 Behind The Music special. He also nonchalantly mentioned being a judge for "this show called The Sing Off" and getting a text message from Miley Cyrus.
Also by The Way Ben came back for an encore sans orchestra and meandered around the stage with the intent on touching everything in the percussion section. This was also the first time I hear somebody in the crowd yell "More cowbell" and the performer delivered.
Related: Interview: Ben Folds on making the most of a misunderstood career. Folds with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, for the gist.