Fort Worth — Ben Folds is really, really popular, as evidenced by the sold-out crowd at Bass Performance Hall Saturday night and the chants of “Ben! Ben! Ben!” inducing him to play a second encore (as the Fort Worth Symphony and conductor Ron Spigelman quietly filed out) in a show that stretched to nearly two and a half hours.
He is an excellent live performer; although his voice is (to this ear) nothing spectacular, his lyrics are clever. His ability to play piano and sing simultaneously, while far from unique, is still admirable, and he has solid musical chops. He’s certainly more entertaining than many other singer/songwriter types.
He also talks during his performances…a lot. That’s OK, though, because he’s funny and engaging. The message he delivers in what is evidently a standard speech is “go to concerts.” His two reasons: classical music is excellent, and taking dates to classical concerts “gets you laid.” (Note: my own experience suggests that while his first assertion is true, his second is hit-or-miss, alas.)
Folds was supposed to play a piano concerto of his own composition, which is what I was there to hear. He played the third movement, about five minutes’ worth, which is evidently typical of his set list. I can’t say that I’ve ever before heard an amplified piano concerto, or even one movement thereof, indoors. It was as loud as you’d expect. Every stand of strings and every other musician, including Folds himself, was miked. The concerto movement began with loud percussion and ended with a loud harp. (Yes, a loud harp is apparently a thing that can happen with sufficient amplification.) The piece was percussive and rhythmic, traditionally tonal, and would perhaps make interesting film music.
The most interesting part of the performance was not so much his songs, which were well known by much of the audience, judging from their cheering. Rather, the highlight was something that Folds apparently does at most performances—an on-the-spot composition. One of the audience members shouted, “Rock that Bitch!” This is apparently a cue for Ben Folds to begin his extemporaneous songwriting. He asked the shouting woman whether she’d had a breakup in the past decade. “Yes.” “Why?” “Because he was an asshole.”
So Ben Folds (formerly of Ben Folds Five) asked an assistant to use Google to provide him with a poem about men who are assholes. This poem, once proffered, became the song’s lyrics. He then assigned parts to each player. At first, some of the musicians seemed a little baffled. Folds didn’t give them a key or any other helpful cues, but just sang and played their parts—“OK, you do this—dada da dada da da.” Quickly, though, they figured out what Folds had in mind. (Concertmaster Michael Shih is especially good at this game, incidentally.) What resulted was, surprisingly, a remarkably coherent whole. And the lyrics did indeed describe an asshole boyfriend. Apparently one with a goatee and a Mercedes.
Ben Folds is popular for good reason—his performance was a lot of fun. And he’s right—people should go hear “dead German guys” (and dead French guys, and living American gals, and all the rest of it) more often. He likened Pops concerts to “wet T-shirt night” for the orchestra, by which I gather he meant a way to garner attention and sell tickets. In contrast, too many Fort Worth Symphony classical programs play to a hall less than two-thirds full.
So if you’re a fan of Ben Folds, take his advice and go to some classical concerts, too, if you’re not already. Who knows? You may get lucky.