Another night with Ben Folds, who is capable of anything

So I had tickets to a Ben Folds show last night. My 12th in the 19 years I have been a fan.

As I rolled through my work day yesterday, still tired and a little overwhelmed by the recent weeks’ events, I had thoughts of whether I might finally be getting too old for this concert stuff.

By the end of the night. … Nah.

Ben Folds. That guy does not disappoint. As I headed toward Kansas City last night I couldn’t help but reflect on the previous 11 occasions I've seen him perform and marvel that no Ben Folds show – or Ben Folds Five show – I’ve attended has resembled the same feel or presentation as another. In fact, I’ve seen him play nine different venues in six cities. And even then, an argument could be made that I’ve seen him play 11 different venues – because I’ve seen him play three different stages in four trips to Summerfest.

From feeling the balcony tremble during a euphoric “Battle of Who Care Less” in Omaha’s Sokol Auditorium, to singing “There's Always Someone Cooler Than You” with an amazingly energetic Summerfest crowd, to the jaw-dropping night with the Kansas City Symphony, I have very distinct memories of each show.

Last night, I saw Ben play at Kansas City’s Uptown Theater. It was my second trip to that venue, having seeing the amazing Nickel Creek there last year.

My marveling transitioned from Ben Folds memories to the memories of just a couple weeks ago as I rolled into downtown Kansas City and drove past Union Station and the Liberty Memorial. I thought about all the people crammed on the lawn for the Royals World Championship celebration and got a kick as I drove down Broadway toward the theater and thought about the hundreds of thousands of people lining the street for the parade.

I pulled into the McDonald’s down the street from the theater to grab a bite to eat and take advantage of the wi-fi to do some work. ‘80s pop music blasted on the restaurant speakers, but I found some rare clarity and I was productive.

I headed to the theater around 6:45 p.m. and waited in line only a few minutes for the doors to open.

Quickly, I headed into auditorium to find my seat and then had some disappointment when I realized it was near the back, a few rows behind the sound booth. Unlike the general admission and open standing-room concept for Nickel Creek’s show, last night’s Ben Folds show was strictly a reserved seating affair. My ticket landed me in the permanent flip-down theater seats, and rows of folding chairs covered the floor on the orchestra level. I accepted it, taking solace in the array of environments I’ve seen Ben and feeling lucky just to be there. … The young couple who sat down behind me moments later didn’t share the sentiment. They proceeded to curse up a storm, and I gathered through their conversation that this was their second Ben Folds show, they thought they had second row seats on the floor until an usher moved them and the guy's mom bought the tickets for them. They even went so far as to contemplate whether they should ask for a refund. Youths.

This was my vantage point ...

The opening act was interesting. It was the Dutch singer/songwriter Dotan. He and his accomplice sat together at center stage, performed a handful of tunes and showed off some fine guitar strumming. The tenor of Dotan’s vocals reminded me a bit of The Shins, but more worldly -- and his stage presence reminded me of Yanni. On a couple songs he put down his guitar to beat a bass drum. … By the end of their set, all of it was sounding the same to me.

Ben Folds took the stage at 9, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. His new album is more adult contemporary than anything he’s done and a far cry from the power pop of his earlier days. I mean the guy broke on to the radio some 20 years ago with Ben Folds Five, playing so-called “punk rock for sissies.” And now he’s composing sweeping piano concertos and rebooting his hits with orchestra arrangements and fresh instrumental flourishes. He's a kind of Brian Wilson for my generation.

I downloaded his new album, “So There,” from iTunes the week it was released in September, but only had logged a few listens prior to last night. Let’s just say I’m far more appreciative of it now.

Ben collaborated and recorded the album with a six-person orchestra called yMusic. They were all there on stage with Ben last night. He played on an upright piano with the orchestra flanking him in a semicircle. A viola, violin and a cello to his right. Bass clarinet, flute/piccolo and trumpet/French horn to his left. A drummer took care of the percussion duties, sitting behind the trio on the left side. Together, they were eight enormously talented musicians doing their thing as if they were just practicing and experimenting in a studio – but with a few hundred people watching.

The six instrumentalists who form yMusic came out first and launched into a frenzied orchestra piece that immediately had me sitting on the edge of my seat. I kept waiting for it to turn into an exciting intro to a Ben Folds song, but that didn’t happen. For the time being, it was yMusic’s turn to shine and own the stage. The song was “Beautiful Mechanical.”

Ben appeared as the applause from the prelude died down and they started with “So There,” the title track from Ben’s new album. Next, during “Long Way To Go,” they performed a wave – the kind you see fans do at stadiums during baseball games. 

As usual, Ben was snarky, profane and dropped bits of humor throughout the night. Before “I’m Not the Man,” he deadpanned in a single breath: “This song I wrote for a movie. It was rejected.”

And, as is the custom at his shows, he indulged the crowd with an improvised, on-the-spot rendition of what’s become known as “Rock This Bitch,” and he carried the symphony with him – just like he did that night at the Kauffman Center (Watch this to hear Ben tell the history of the song, and see his genius do its thing with yet another orchestra).

As if the crowd wasn’t satisfied with the first take, Ben took another stab, calling for “Rock This Bitch, Part 2,” a country blues ode to Kansas City.

For the most part, the first half of Ben’s set was a mild affair – for a Ben Folds concert at least – and largely met the mood I anticipated, given the vibe of the “So There” album. There was a flash of excitement when they broke out “Effington,” but pulled back again with “I’m Not the Man.”

We got a couple Ben Folds Five classics with “Mess” and “Evaporated,” which enveloped another yMusic showcase on “Music in Circles.”

The excitement shot up, though, when the musicians dove into “Song for the Dumped,” and the vibe of the show only surged from there. A seven-minute “Steven’s Last Night in Town” featured outstanding drum and bass clarinet solos. Turns out there's a studio recording of the version on YouTube. Watch ...

Here’s excerpts from a review in The Kansas City Star to say what I haven’t already …
Ben Folds has a fetish for orchestrating and conducting, and it was on full display Wednesday before a sold-out crowd at the Uptown Theater.
For nearly two hours, Folds led a dynamic six-piece chamber orchestra from New York called yMusic through his deep catalog and various rearrangements of some of his most beloved songs.
As with his most-recent performance in Kansas City at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, where the Kansas City Symphony supported him, Wednesday’s show revealed the dexterity, diversity and adaptability of Folds’ songwriting. But above and beyond all, the show introduced to Kansas City the high-octane precision and power of yMusic. …
(H)e began introducing his band members. The first of them was violinist Rob Moose, whose introduction instantly turned the Uptown into Kauffman Stadium, as if third baseman Mike Moustakas had just stepped up to the plate. Folds went with the display of affection, and for the rest of his introductions, he gave each band member a nickname and had the crowd cheer it back in unison.
Before “Phone in a Pool,” Folds told the story behind it: In New Orleans, in a fit of frustration, he tossed his BlackBerry into the deep end of a hotel pool. It was immediately retrieved by another of the hotel’s guests, the fully clothed pop singer Ke$ha,who advised him to pack it in rice. At the end of the song, he halted the orchestra not with a wave of his arm but by bellowing “Shut the (bleep) up!”
Throughout the show, yMusic was demonstrative and dynamic, sometimes too much so. During several songs, Folds’ voice ended up immersed in the tide of music swirling around him. He got some spot-on harmonies from Moose and Smith but most noticeably from Alex Sopp, who excelled on the flute and piccolo. 

Which brings me to, for me, the highlight of the night. Almost from the beginning of the show, I found myself enthralled with the backing vocals provided by the yMusic members – especially Sopp, whose harmonies blended oh-so-beautifully with Ben on a majority of the songs. And all the while I kept thinking, They have GOT to do “You Don’t Know Me.”

Just when I had started to doubt whether it would happen, they performed it, with Ben and Alex doing the back-and-forth of an arguing couple – and the crowd shouting “Say it!” It was glorious.

The encore ensued, and I had become so swallowed in the show that it never occurred to me the group would play the crowd participation standards “Army” and “The Ascent of Stan.” They did, and those were glorious, too. The crowd, which never stood during the first set, was on its feet throughout the encore.

Here's “Army”...

I found it somewhat fitting that “Pomp and Circumstance” played on the auditorium speakers as the crowd exited.

As I drove through downtown and onto the highway, I found myself marveling again – this time at the skyline that had been illuminated with Royals blue and gold a few weeks ago and was now showing in red, white and blue in acknowledgement of the attacks in Paris.

I listened to the “So There” album on repeat all the way home.

Here’s the setlist

1. Beautiful Mechanical
2. So There
3. Long Way To Go
4. Not a Fan
5. Effington
6. I'm Not the Man
7. Phone in a Pool
8. Rock This Bitch
9. Rock This Bitch, Part 2
10. Mess
11. Music in Circles
12. Evaporated
13. Yes Man
14. Erase Me
15. Song for the Dumped
16. Capable of Anything
17. Steven's Last Night In Town
18. You Don't Know Me

19. Army
20. The Ascent of Stan

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