There are some artists who only truly make sense in the live arena. Their records may be great but it’s only when you see them live that you realise exactly how brilliant they are. Ani DiFranco is one of those artists, and Ben Folds is another.
This was Folds’ first UK tour in over four years, and after being postponed from November when a nasty bout of pneumonia left Folds unable to perform, expectations were high at Leicester’s rather smart De Montfort Hall. Before Folds took to the stage though, it was Clem Snide‘s turn to warm up the audience.
This was actually a solo performance from Clem Snide’s lead singer Eef Barzelay, looking resplendent in an natty white suit, topped off with a incongruous red baseball cap. Armed only with an acoustic guitar, he treated the crowd to 30 minutes of funny and touching alt-country songs. His vocals brought to mind Michael Stipe, and there were definite touches of Elliott Smith in there as well.
Barzelay has a knack for writing thoughtful lyrics – one song is written from the point of a view of an “MTV video babe”, and is one of the best ‘character’ songs I’ve ever heard. Other highlights of his short set were Jews For Jesus Blues and a acoustic version of Christina Aguilera‘s Beautiful which effortlessly knocked spots off the original. The audience gave Barzelay a superb reception and there were more than a few people spotted buying his CD during the interval.
Ben Folds’ sudden appearance obviously took more than a few people by surprise as there were still people rushing into the hall in the middle of his opening song Bastard. The acoustics of the De Montfort meant the sound was superb – Folds and his backing musicians, bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson, created a note perfect replica of the album’s sound, but added some extra energy in there too.
It helps that Folds is such a showman – this is a man who is more than comfortable playing live. A few days beforehand, he’d been subject to an inane interview on GMTV and he looked somewhat awkward. Not tonight though – he was relaxed and comfortable, crouching over his piano, playing beats on his microphone and even climbing up onto his piano to conduct the audience’s backing vocals.
The set list was mainly taken from Folds’ solo career, with selections from Rockin’ The Suburbs and recent album Songs For Silverman dominant. Yet there were also lesser known tracks, such as a storming There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You from last year’s internet only EP Sunny 16. Fans of Folds early days with Ben Folds Five weren’t disappointed either as he threw in a few songs such as Brick and The Last Polka (although sadly, there was no sign of Underground, which he’d performed the previous night in Sheffield).
Folds also likes his cover versions, with his version of The Cure’s In Between Days being a particular highlight, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was his rendition of Dr Dre‘s Bitches Ain’t Shit. Folds managed to turn the gangster rap song into one of the saddest piano ballads you’ll ever hear, even getting the audience to sing along with “bitches ain’t part of the street”, and English drummer Jamieson giving Mike Skinner a run for his money with a cockney rap!
Jamieson and Reynolds departed at one stage, leaving Folds alone with his piano to perform a quite spell-binding acoustic set. The Luckiest was dedicated to a couple in the audience who had danced to the song at their wedding, and The Last Polka demonstrated Folds’ virtuso skills on the piano. Perhaps the best moment though was Army, with the audience filling in for the song’s memorable horn section.
After a terrific rendition of Rockin’ The Suburbs and an energetic One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces, the houselights went up, much to the audience’s disappointment, who would have been quite happy to see Folds continue all night. Well worth the wait, Ben Folds remains one of the best live performers around today – the best fun you can have with no guitar in sight in fact.