Tell someone you’re going to see a primarily piano-based songwriter play live with not one guitar in sight, and you’d probably be giving the impression of a very dry, even sedate evening out.
With Ben Folds though, nothing could be further from the truth. During both his days with Ben Folds Five and as a solo performer, his reputation has been built on producing massively entertaining gigs – whether it be audience participation, improvisation or just watching the man pound the piano like his life depended it, every moment of Folds live is riveting.
An entertaining short set from Clem Snide‘s lead singer Eef Barzelay preceded the main attraction. Clad all in white, Barkely seemed to channel the spirit of Elvis Presley as he sang his witty alt-country songs. Barzelay’s songs were interspersed with a number of amusing stories (including one about a woman mistakingly diagnosing him with autism) and threw in some excellent cover versions, including a particularly impressive version of Christina Aguilera‘s Beautiful. Ending with an a cappella rendition of The Ballad Of David Icke, Barzelay left the stage, having made many new friends.
Everyone at the City Hall was already on friendly terms with Ben Folds of course – greeted with a huge cheer as he entered the stage, sat down and launched straight into the old Ben Folds Five instrumental Theme From Dr Pyser, an opportunity for us to admire Folds’ virtuoso piano playing.
Folds was backed by his regular bass player Jared Reynolds and new drummer Sam Smith – who, almost unbelievably, was only playing his third ever gig with Folds. There was no sign of nerves though, as Smith settled into his role like he’d been born to it. There was an extra addition to the band as well, a red synthesizer to Folds’ right hand side, which was utilised in a variety of imaginative ways throughout the evening.
Having been around for nearly 15 years, Folds has built up an impressive canon of work, and highlights from both his Five days and his solo material was aired. There was also the traditional improvised rendition of Rock This Bitch, taking in lyrics about eating spaghetti while travelling to Sheffield.
As ever, Folds was the consummate showman, playing his piano stood up most of the time, battering the keys with his elbow at times, and even at one point playing the synth with his bare feet at the same time as playing the piano! The Songs For Silverman opening track Bastard even had one gentleman dancing frantically in the aisles, impressing Folds so much that he invited him up on stage to perform “an interpretive dance” to There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You – earning himself a standing ovation at the end!
We were also treated to his unique interpretation of Dr Dre‘s Bitches Ain’t Shit, which managed to turn a viciously misogynistic rap song into a melancholy and tender piano ballad. Another highlight was the gorgeous Landed and the epic sound of Narcolepsy, before another old Ben Folds Five track Kate had more people dancing in the aisles.
Sadly, there was no version of Army tonight (always a high point of the Folds live experience), but this was more than made up for by a rare outing for a full band outing of Underground and a brilliant cover of the Postal Service’s Some Great Heights.
An excellent encore saw Folds conducting the entire audience on backing vocals for Not The Same, before a frantic version of One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces saw the entire City Hall up and dancing. The key element of a Ben Folds gig is fun – Folds and his two bandmates always look like they’re having an absolute riot on stage, and this makes him one of the best live acts around today.