Ben Folds: Unshakeable talent

Jason Tang

I’ve been to several concerts at the Pageant, all of which were characterized by heavily distorted guitars and headache-inducing light shows. I went to the Ben Folds concert expecting much of the same thing, but what I saw was very different: a six piece orchestra, a drummer and a pianist hypnotizing a sold-out audience for an hour and a half.

Famous for heading the Ben Folds Five, Folds has found success on many different musical platforms over the years: in a band, as a solo artist and, most recently, as a composer of a 20-minute-long “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.” He brought that eclecticism to the Pageant on Tuesday Nov. 17.

Folds was accompanied by the group yMusic, from New York City, for the performance. They were the first to enter the stage, beginning with an original piece, “Beautiful Mechanical,” which was filled with rapid violin strokes, rapid page-turning and strange time signatures. Each instrument played a uniquely different riff, yet they all combined to make order out of chaos, as the song title suggests.

After the song, Folds walked out on stage, sporting his familiar glasses and shaggy haircut – the look of a man made busy from deep thinking and touring. He sat at his piano like a cowboy sits on a trusted steed. Without saying a word, he broke into “So There,” a song from his new album, which shares the same name.

Folds performed much of the new album during the performance, which was recorded in collaboration with yMusic. He catered to the crowd by playing older songs as well, such as “Mess” and “Evaporated,” which had been adapted to fit the orchestral arrangement.

The concert was an eccentric mix of dry wit and angelic music that worked so well. If the concert were a movie, it would be rated R for language, part of Folds’s appeal. His lyrics are the honest words of a middle-aged man who finds peace through self-deprecation. “Here’s a song I wrote for a movie. It was rejected,” said Folds about the song “I’m Not The Man.” “I used to be my father’s son/ I used to be number one,” describes his anxieties of fading into obscurity. It stands in stark contrast to “Wish I hadn’t bought you dinner/ Right before you dumped me on your front porch,” a lyric from “Song for the Dumped” that made it seem more like a comedy show.

A notable performance was “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” a classic Ben Folds Five ode to a friend who overstays his welcome. It began with an airy jazz drum beat followed by an exotic clarinet riff. These two instruments were the stars of the song, both getting their own extended solos that I wished would never end.

The Pageant makes for an intimate atmosphere that encourages movement, but when I wasn’t mesmerized by the performers, I was watching the motionless crowd. Very few held up phones to take videos. All energy was invested into absorbing the music. I’m sure the crowd would have danced if told to, but the most important thing for those in attendance was to listen to the mixture of sounds that could be produced only by Ben Folds and his crew.

For the encore, the group started with the beloved “Army,” and afterwards, Folds taught the audience the backup vocals for the next song. He rambled on about how we needed to adjust our vocal cords and sneer our faces in the correct manner, jokingly letting his musical genius show.

Folds assumed the role of conductor and sat on top of his piano as the cellist began playing the eerily repetitive bass line of “Not the Same,” joined by a haunting melody on the flute. At the chorus, Folds raised his hands, prompting the crowd to sing their part. At the song’s conclusion, Folds continued his conducting of the crowd, waving his hands in all directions and at different speeds, allowing us to switch roles with the performers. With a final rise in pitch and hand signal to end, Folds said “Thanks y’all,” introducing the band for a last time and exiting the stage with “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” playing in the background.

The concert had a moral. It reminded me listen to music and not just hear it. Popular music is often so filled with effects that it sounds more from a factory than from musicians. In an industry filled with superficiality, Folds remains unshakable and is able to shine through so that his music can reach those who want to hear it.