With no new album to promote, not even a one-off single, you could be forgiven for wondering why on earth Ben Folds was embarking on a UK tour.
Yet this is to misunderstand the man who is primarily defined as a live artist – just listening to the records only gives you half the story.
Folds has always brought an intriguing support act with him. It’s fair to say that a few people weren’t at all sure about Corn Mo when he first came onstage, all straggly long hair and beard, picked up an accordion and performed a rather droney ballad with it.
Things soon picked up though, for Corn Mo is, in the nicest possible way, absolutely barking. Telling tales between songs about trips to Germany and childhood friends being urinated on, he soon charmed all in the crowd with his off-kilter vaudeville numbers. Looking like a young Meat Loaf and sounding like Freddie Mercury it was somehow no surprise when he launched into a cover version of We Are The Champions, accompanied only by an accordion.
There was even a heavy rock number as an encore (which, as Corn Mo couldn’t bring his band with him, used a recording from CD as a backing track) and received an ovation worthy of the main act. Possibly not to everyone’s taste, but the perfect, slightly quirky, warm up act.
Not that the Academy crowd needed much warming up for Ben Folds of course. Folds fans are a notoriously obsessive lot, travelling the country to see their hero at multiple dates and singing every single word of every single song word perfect. In fact, it was a bit of a surprise when Folds opened with a new song, Errant Dog, that there wasn’t a mass singalong straight away.
Folds is a consummate showman, crouching behind his piano and bantering easily with the audience. For a man with a reputation as a bit of a comedian, his musical skills are woefully underlooked though – he is a pianist of incredible skill and dexterity, pulling off various head-spinning riffs such as the introduction to Zak & Sara with absolutle ease.
He also kept a small electronic synth to one side of his piano, alternating between the two to produce some spacey effects. The interplay between Folds and his two bandmates was also excellently done, with time even given to a roadie to simply walk onstage during Landed, shake a tambourine, and then walk off again.
The setlist was pretty evenly spread across both Folds’ solo career and his work with Ben Folds Five, together with tracks from his album to be released in September. Of these, Kylie From Connecticut and Free Coffee seemed the most immediate, falling easily into the bittersweet Folds template.
As ever with Ben, there was also a fair degree of improvisation, including the now traditional Rock This Bitch (tonight about a previous gig at Sheffield’s Leadmill where Ben lost one of his shoes), an off-the-cuff version of the Peanuts theme, and, after much egging on from the audience, renditions of some radio jingles he recorded in Japan recently. There were also tales aplenty of falling offstage in Hiroshima and talk of how his now notorious cover of Dr Dre‘s Bitches Ain’t Shit has been retired, brought out of retirement and then retired again (luckily for us, it was brought out of retirement again tonight).
Hardcore fans were also treated to a rare solo rendition of the old Folds Five favourite Tom And Mary, and the entire Academy audience took on the traditional role during Army where the crowd sang the song’s unmistakable brass section. In fact the only time that the celebratory mood dropped was when Gracie, Ben’s rather sappy ode to his baby daughter, was performed.
After a blistering encore of Philosophy (which cleverly meshed into the old Ben Folds Five instrumental Theme From Dr Peyser) it was time for the traditional end to the gig where Folds throws his stool at the piano with full force. At two hours long and at least 20 songs, it was more proof that Ben Folds gives the best value shows in town.