Live review: Ben Folds, Belk Theater (11/3/2015)


Ben Folds
Belk Theater
Nov. 3, 2015

Every chair held an eager music fan Tuesday night at the Belk Theater — normally this kind of attendance isn’t uncommon for the theater, so one might just think there was a performance of Wicked in town for the evening. This night, however, the crowd was not there for one of their typical giant-scale stage productions, but for an artist whose musical career has spanned numerous albums, several collaborations with the likes of everyone from Regina Spektor to William Shatner and more than two decades of material: North Carolina native Ben Folds.

Musician, composer, singer and oftentimes conductor, Winston-Salem-born Folds first hit it big in the mainstream with his band Ben Folds Five in 1995; he moved on to a solo career in 2001, releasing a string of studio albums and documentaries of his incredible live performances, but returned to his roots with a BF5 reunion in 2012 with album The Sound of the Life of the Mind. He now owns and operates RCA Studio A (known for the recordings of a few legends, like Dolly Parton, the Beach Boys and Elvis, just to name a few), is a member of the board of directors of the Nashville Symphony (he composed a three movement piano concerto in 2014 as part of a symphonic global tour) and is a member of the Artist Committee for Americans for the Arts.

He’s had a busy career and stays plenty busy promoting music and music education, and yet he still managed to find the time to tour his most recent release, So There, a collaboration with New York City chamber ensemble yMusic: he’s a true musician to the core and literally seems to spend every moment in pursuit of its expression.

yMusic, his collaborator on the new record, started off the show launching into "Beautiful Mechanical," a piece that showcased the six-piece group and their amazing skill set. yMusic served as the only backing band, along with a small drum kit in the background, to Folds’ piano and they were such a powerhouse that at times they threatened to outshine him (and anyone familiar with Folds live show knows that is no easy feat). When Folds came on stage to join them on the title track, "So There," (to thunderous applause of course), the tone for the evening was set. Folds’ audience is used to his fast-paced anthems flying up and down the keys, but this album collaboration is a brief departure from that, and much more mellow. “I get tired of the typical rock band stuff,” Folds said before "Yes Man," setting this evening apart and showcasing a different side to the artist.

But, of course, he didn’t neglect to throw in fan favorites — it's impossible to do them all anyway with such a huge catalogue of beloved songs to select from. Folds and yMusic rocked some new arrangements on the throwbacks from his Ben Folds Five days and his solo career, and the addition of the brass especially gave some new life to what were already staples in his arsenal. Songs like "Erase Me" and "Steven’s Last Night in Town" were given something extra with the addition of the brass and orchestra, the arrangement becoming more punchy than ever before and full of energy. (Side note: Upon introduction of Steven, Folds revealed that Steven had actually passed away this past year. Sad, but he quickly turned it into laughter, quipping about how the song was written because he had said he could never love a woman with cellulite at a party, joking: “we all wanted to beat the shit out of him….[now he’s gone] so I guess he’s getting it now!”).

Folds is well known as a modern-day king of the keys but in person he’s endearing and personal as well; anecdotes like this filled the evening as he comfortably bantered with the audience, introducing songs like "Phone in a Pool" and getting sidetracked with a suddenly remembered anecdote about Russell Brand:  “I didn’t throw my phone into a pool in New Orleans, it was California… but oh, wait! Russell Brand threw a phone in New Orleans, remember that?! I love him,” he would go off, recalling the details.

Folds is just a fun guy and, despite the enormity of the Belk theatre and a packed room, it kind of felt like a personal small club atmosphere thanks to his warmth. It could also be that he is so familiar with Charlotte — when a (slightly inebriated) fan in row 6 screamed out “rock this bitch!,” he turned the cry into a rousing free-styled intro to "Rock this Bitch" recalling his old high school in Winston-Salem (Richard J. Reynolds High School for any alums out there) where he was frequently sent home for his antics.

Onstage, he is just a wonder to watch, as a pianist, as a lyricist, as a composer, a conductor and as a man. It was a treat to see this on such a stage, but also to see how Folds really supported and worked with an outside entity like yMusic. There are so few real artists these days but no one in that room was in doubt that one was present Tuesday night.

Beautiful Mechanical
So There
Long Way to Go
Not a Fan
Rock This Bitch 1
I'm Not the Man
Phone in a Pool
Music in Circles
Yes Man
Erase Me
Song for the Dumped
Capable of Anything
Steven's Last Night in Town
You Don't Know Me

Not the Same
Rock This Bitch 2

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