November 28, 2014
“I’m not bad”, declared the singer and songwriter, Ben Folds, “but you should come see the real stuff.”
Folds made this self-deprecating pronouncement during a lively defence of symphony orchestras after his Piano Concerto – Movement 3, a not-at-all-bad mash-up of the form, in the first set of his Perth Concert Hall stand with WASO (conducted by Nicholas Buc).
The set needed it, and more, to overcome a swampy sound that reduced songs like the opener, Effington, to a blare. It exposed Folds’ weaknesses – a voice best described as plaintive, and melodies that are more chord progressions than tunes – and obscured the strengths that have made him a star: complex, cunning lyrics and muscular rhythm piano playing.
By and large, the less orchestration there was the better, which was a waste when so many musicians had come to play. And, in truth, much of Folds’ material simply lacks the musical heft to justify all these resources, which, in turn, have little to contribute to it.
A song like Landed, well made as it is, ends up like an out-take from Madmen across the Water, while the sad, finely-wrought Picture Window (with lyrics by the novelist Nick Hornby) succeeds not so much by rising above the arrangement as by escaping from under it. The same went for the touching Fred Jones Part 2.
But it’s impossible to resist Folds’ all-American geekiness for long (think Harold Ramis meets Ira Glass), and things picked up appreciably after the break.
The better-than-Billy Joel tumble of Zak and Sara, the sweeping Cologne and the sentimental The Luckiest were all very fine. When the audience got involved – in the obligatory improvisation Rock This Bitch (on this occasion a waltz to the Wikipedia entry for Perth, with a shout out to Tim Minchin) and some impressive three-part harmony sing-alongs to Not the Same and, spontaneously, Brick – it became obvious how Folds has made so many loyal friends. They happily got to their feet and drove the show home through Narcolepsy and, with Folds finally just a piano man, Army.
As for the “real stuff”. Folds was talking about the great classical composers, but he made me think of rock musicians whose material really flies with an orchestra behind it: Peter Gabriel, whose recent orchestral collaborations are astounding, Van Dyke Parks, John Cale, Jonny Greenwood and the great Randy Newman among them. Maybe, one fine day, we might see them in front of WASO.
This review appeared in The West Australian 1.1.14
Here's what I mean:
Exhibit A: Not Bad Ben Folds
Exhibit B: More Like It Randy Newman
Exhibit C: Now You're Talking John Cale
Exhibit D: I Rest My Case Peter Gabriel