If I had known in 2019 that the last concert I would have shot for nearly four years was LeAnn Rimes, I would have made better life choices. One of the few highlights the quarantine period of my life were the weekly Ben Folds live streams. Fans gathered together remotely to furiously chat song requests and take in piano lessons from a master. Concert after concert was canceled, but Folds gave freely of his time to entertain. It’s long past time I got back to what matters most to me: concert photography.
New London’s Garde Arts Center is a revived historic movie palace, built in 1926. The Moroccan styled interior has been restored to the golden era of motion pictures that rivals the grandeur of The Cap in Port Chester. Both the space and the staff are warm and inviting.
Without fail, Ben Folds’ opening acts are exceptional. Tall Heights is not to be missed and makes getting to the venue early worth it. The duo of Tim Harrington on acoustic guitar and Paul Wright on cello have laid back etherial harmonies. A stripped down slow tempo cover of Blink-182’s “Dammit” lulls you, while showing you the band’s humor. Tall Heights explained they recorded a new album, influenced by the way Folds records: with all the musicians together, playing live in a room. They treated the audience to a new song they hadn’t performed anywhere yet. For the final song of their half hour set, Wright and Harrington stepped away from the microphones and stood at the front of the stage. Their powerful harmonies could be heard clearly at the back of the venue.
A shadowy Ben Folds sips a drink as he strolls across the stage to his Yamaha baby grand piano to the cheers of the full venue. He flashes his signature toothy grin as the band of six settles in and they open with the tricky harmonies of “Family of Me,” a track off the Over the Hedge Soundtrack. Folds’ first line to the audience, “How great I am,” is met with more cheers.
The full band consists of Harrington and Wright from Tall Heights, Derek Wong on bass, Paul Dumas on drums and Ross Garren on harmonica and keyboards. The harmonies of Tall Heights blend with Folds seamlessly and help fill out what sounded to me as hoarse, at times perhaps a little thin vocals from Folds. Occasionally, the band slid into the right notes, and there were a couple of flubs on the piano. Folds explains between songs it’s the first time he’s felt nervous in a decade. The band is having fun together, and can be often seen locking eyes with each other and smiling. And the harmonica, can we talk about the harmonica for a moment? Where has this been all the years of performing live? It fit so well with songs off the new album as well as old songs. Dear Ben, never tour without a harmonica again.
Typical of a Ben Folds performance, there are frequent breaks for story telling. Folds talks about his Patreon group assignments; members were tasked with finding headlines to turn into songs. Kristine from the Seventh Grade is a twist where Folds writes a fictional backstory about an author who’s headline he didn’t care for. The title track of What Matters Most came into being as Folds was clearing out the junk in his storage unit and he received “the worst text message” of his life: his friend Bob Saget had passed away. The process had already been a reflective moment for Folds, but took on a new meaning now, and it was time to focus on “What Matters Most.”
The audience found ways to interact with the show throughout by singing harmonies and a lone shouted request to Rock this Bitch. Folds jokes that he’s created a monster, but acquiesces with a toy piano version of places they visited in New London. The band never misses a beat and all take a solo. After the shortest encore pause in the history of live performances, New London must have a strict noise ordinance, Folds and band play an additional two songs. The final of the night, “Zak and Sara,” cause a couple audience members to stand in the aisle and dance with reckless abandon. It was one of those moments that was a joy to watch others having such joy at a show; one that I’ve missed sorely for years.
This was a different Folds concert. In the past, I’ve preferred seeing him as a solo act, but the addition of a full band to perform these songs just makes sense. As I thought about what was different on the ride home, it hit me: he didn’t perform a single Ben Folds Five song. This was Ben Folds. Full stop. He’s made a few comments that this is the last “pop” album he’s going to put out (until the urge hits him), and turn his focus on orchestral ambitions. If so, this tour truly is a celebration of what Folds has created over the decades of his solo career. There were a few shaky steps on the first night of the tour, but nothing the band won’t work out once these songs become routine.