A night at the symphony with Ben Folds

So this happened tonight.

... It was concert No. 11 for me with Ben. I've seen him in varied arrangements over the years. But this was one-of-a-kind. In an atmosphere all its own.

First of all, it hasn’t been the greatest week. I’m miserable with a summer cold that has me feeling like my head could pop like a pimple at any moment. It’s been a lonely, trying week, dealing with a range of issues, including a power outage on the campus. … I received the all-clear call regarding the power outage while I was driving to Kansas City this evening and proceeded to pull off at a McDonald’s where I logged on to a university account with the restaurant’s free wi-fi and sent an email to all of our employees from my laptop in my car.

No. 1, technology is great. No. 2, God bless McDonald’s.

On with the show …

As he’s done on so many nights, Ben Folds erased all my cares for about two and half hours. But tonight, more than ever, I wish I could pack this feeling and the music into a treasure chest to store and relive. … He’s done the studio albums, the live recordings and even the a capella album. So now I’m hoping he produces an album of his symphony songs -- soon .

Ben was in town this week for a two-night stay with the Kansas City Symphony, and I bought my ticket for tonight's show, the second of the two. This night never would have been possible if not for Kates who tipped me off about the concert in February after she saw a post about it on Facebook. We discussed going together, but she opted not to go after weighing all the factors of cost, finding a baby-sitter and her early mornings teaching summer school. … Now I’m really wishing she could have accompanied me. Not only would she have thoroughly enjoyed it, it sucked being there by myself and being surrounded by so many couples enjoying each other’s company.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is a gorgeous concert venue. Period. … In this Flickr album are some photos I captured when I visited the building a couple summers ago, though not for a concert. And here's an excellent video tour.

Shortly after arriving inside the atrium, I found an usher to point me in the direction of my seat. The nice elderly woman told me I was close and directed me down a hall “to the first door on the right.” ... So I proceeded into the hallway and turned into the first door on my right. The door led me into a second tier of seating, which provided an ideal view of the stage, and I would have been perfectly happy there. But I couldn’t find a seat number that matched the one on my ticket.

So I went back into the hallway and found another usher – who directed me to the first door on the right, at the end of the hallway. The door … closest to the stage. I was in row H. Yes, eight rows from the stage. Ben’s Steinway piano stood about 15-20 feet directly in front of me. I felt like I had won the lottery.

As the symphony hall began to fill, it was quickly apparent that tonight’s environment was not that of your typical Ben Folds concert. The girls came in summer dresses fit for church, and the guys dressed in button-down shirts and slacks. Some came in ties and even full suits. This was higher class and more sophisticated than the festivals and smoky halls where I’m accustomed to seeing him perform.

To begin the show the Kauffman Center president, director – I didn't catch his title – took the stage to provide introductions, and he asked for a show of hands by the audience members who had never attended a concert at the venue. About two-thirds of the crowd – mostly younger adults – raised their hands, which understandably led to an invite to attend more concerts at the center. The remainder of the crowd consisted of mostly older audience members, who I assume were loyal symphony supporters, donors and season ticket holders.

Once concert was underway, it turned into everything I had dreamed of and more. It was a collection of Ben’s hits and fan favorites – brought to us in a totally new way. With breath-taking string and wind arrangements, booming brass, pounding tympani and snare. There were wind chimes, a harp and an eight-person chorus.

At times I wondered where the PBS cameras were positioned. At other times, I felt like I was watching it all in an European concert hall.

I also found myself fascinated with watching the symphony’s musicians who represented men and women of all adult ages and races. The violin section, for example, included a woman who must have been 60 or 70 years old, sitting behind a woman who I’ll estimate was in her mid to late 30s. More than that, I found myself taking great pride in the fact I was watching Ben Folds play with the Kansas City Symphony. These are our people! I thought.

Ben’s string versions of “Smoke” and “Landed” are well known to dedicated Ben Folds fans. The slower pieces – “Brick” and “The Luckiest” – sounded wonderful, too. But the concert was at its best during the upbeat numbers.

“Effington” set a fantastic tone for the night, and “Steven’s Last Night in Town” – the horns! – capped the first half brilliantly. “Steven’s Last Night” is one of my least favorite Ben Folds songs, but it was one of my favorites with the symphony tonight.

To start the second half, the symphony began playing an unrecognizable melody, sans Ben. After a few moments, Ben reappeared on the stage, hopped on his piano bench and the ensemble dived into “Zac and Sara.” Clapping their hands and singing with the chorus, the crowd seemed to get into “Zak and Sara” more than any other song during the night.

On “Not the Same,” Ben left his piano to sing from a standing mic at the front of the stage and let the symphony do the accompanying work. As usual, Ben instructed and led the crowd through the song’s vocal accompaniment.

“One Angry Dwarf” closed out the second set, featuring a kickin’ horn arrangement and a load of percussion, including a cowbell on the chorus. The cello players were twirling their instruments, too. To me, those upbeat tracks – “Steven’s Last Night,” Zak and Sara,” and “One Angry Dwarf” – were jaw-on-the-floor amazing.

Ben and the symphony ended the night with “Narcolepsy.” Like “Steven,” it, too, is one of my least favorite Ben Folds tracks, but hearing it live always seems to have me reconsidering. Add the symphony to it, and it sounded way better to my ears tonight.

The between-song banter was funny and interesting all night, too. Early in the concert, Ben recounted and apologized for a statement he made during Tuesday night’s show that apparently annoyed some roller derby fans on social media: “You’re more likely to get laid if you take a date to the symphony … than if you take her to a roller derby.” The roller derby reference turned into a running joke throughout the night and he replaced the word “symphony” with “roller derby” in his remarks the rest of the night, adding that he hoped the “roller derby” sticks around for a long time.

Arguably, the highlight of the night came when someone took advantage of an opportunity to shout “Rock this, bitch.” Now, as Ben explained to the audience members who were unfamiliar with Ben Folds live show lore, when an audience member shouts those words, it serves as a challenge to Ben to compose an original song, titled “Rock This, Bitch,” on the spot. … I, personally, enjoy this version, if only for the Weather Channel riff.

Ben proceeded to instruct the symphony to play D chords and E-flat chords and tutti and fortissimo and all sorts of symphonic terms that I’ve forgotten since my piano playing days or were just way over my head. In front of our eyes, Ben and the musicians were stacking layers of music in what amounted to a live rehearsal that lasted about 15 minutes. Ben instructing the chorus on their parts was particularly amusing. The lead female – a Lea Michelle look-a-like, from my vantage point anyway – was instructed to sing “Roller derby, baby.” You can catch that at the beginning of this video, but it cuts out before a funny exchange when she missed one of her cues and let a “S#%*!” fly into the mic, prompting the audience to break into laughter.

To this point, the audience had been extremely attentive and obeyed the Kauffman Center’s request for no audio or video recordings. But when this little composition got rolling, Ben invited anyone in the audience to start recording and “YouTube it.” … I would have obliged, but my phone battery was dead.

So here it is: A video, captured by an audience member in one of the upper levels, that caps the “rehearsal” portion and the result of the spontaneous composing. It’s the genius of Ben Folds at its best … (Search “Ben Folds Kansas City Symphony” and you’ll find the performance from multiple angles.)

When the song was over, it drew an instant standing ovation from the crowd in appreciation of not only Ben but the talent of the Kansas City Symphony.

Below is the set list – to the best of my memory because my iPhone died before “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” thus preventing me from taking any notes the rest of the night – with links to comparable versions, though not from Kansas City (but mostly from the Live in Perth” DVD), of the songs. ... Social media informs me “Rockin' the Suburbs” was part of Tuesday night's set list, which makes me wonder how different the two nights were.

And here's a photo gallery from The Kansas City Star.

1. “Effington
2. “Smoke
3. “Jesusland
4. “Picture Window”
5.  Piano Concerto: 2nd & 3rd movements
6. “Landed
7. “Fred Jones Part 2
8. “Steven’s Last Night in Town
9. “Zak and Sara”(Here's a snippet someone caught of tonight's performance)
10. “Cologne”
11. “Annie Waits
12. “Rock This Bitch”
13. “The Luckiest
14. “Not the Same
15. “Brick
16. “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces
17. “Narcolepsy

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