Ben Folds is one of my favorite musicians and the one I’ve seen perform live more times than any other. From Ben Folds Five my freshman year at the University of Rhode Island to the Oakdale Theater rocking out Careless Whisper with Rufus Wainwright to the first time I photographed him at the Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I’ve seen him perform solo and it’s just as entertaining as when he plays with a band. Yet of all the times I’ve seen Folds on stage, I’ve never experienced him backed by an orchestra.
The night opened with a mellow set from the Dutch singer songwriter Dotan Hapenau. Normally a six piece band, Dotan put on an acoustic set with only one band member, guitars and a tom drum. All the songs seemed to flow into one another, broken up by humble thanks to the audience. He managed to get the crowd to sing along with his final song of the night, Home. It was an incredibly brief set: five songs that were over within thirty minutes. Then the crowd was left to wait another 40 minutes, listening to the house music and watching the big screens announce upcoming shows at the Paramount. There didn’t seem to be any malfunctions or sound set up issues because the roadies were on and off the stage quickly. I was hopeful that the Sunday night show would start early seeing how it was a school night. My sentiment was echoed by two students from the University of New Haven who had 8 a.m. classes the next morning. Seeing how this was the only area show, a good portion of the crowd had traveled to Long Island. Just before the natives became completely restless, yMusic took the dimly lit stage.
The instrumentation of yMusic combines the best parts of a chamber quartet and concert band. Rob Moose leads on violin, Nadia Sirota on viola, Gabriel Cabezas on cello, CJ Camerieri on trumpet and french horn, Alex Sopp on flute and Hideaki Aomori on clarinet and bass clarinet are all virtuosos on their instruments. There wasn’t a single missed note the entire night and they flowed with Folds’ music perfectly. The recordings I’ve heard of Ben Folds performing with orchestras, while impressive, have felt flat to me. Orchestras are trained to play classical music, and the transition to Folds’ punk rock for sissies doesn’t translate. Not so with yMusic.
Folds came out after a yMusic original piece with a wave to the crowd. He sat in the center of the stage at an upright piano instead of his iconic baby grand. Dressed in a sharp blazer and t-shirt, Folds grinned at the audience, his dimples nearly buried beneath a full beard. It was definitely a shaggier look than I’ve seen before. He sipped on a drink between songs, told stories about the songs and dealt with quips from the crowd in his usual cheeky manner. When an audience member shouted the dreaded “FREEBIRD!” Folds indulged. He went on to play the melody, along with yMusic taking various solos, while making up his own lyrics and introducing the members of the band. Folds and yMusic truly shined during another request for Rock this Bitch. Folds called out chords and melodies to members of yMusic and they picked up their parts in a moments notice. It’s truly incredible to watch someone compose on the spot.
Ben Folds Five songs were sprinkled throughout the set, and the lush instrumentation served these songs well. During the Ben Folds Five reunion tour in 2012, one of the biggest disappointments to me was the song Erase Me. It dragged horribly and felt hollow on stage. With yMusic filling in the orchestration, it was a completely different experience. Steven’s Last Night in Town was also a high point, with Hideaki Aomori busting out a three minute clarinet solo. Folds joked that he was trying to convince Hideaki to release his own jazz album, but didn’t want him to go broke like all jazz musicians did.
Folds encore only consisted of two songs, but they stuck with me the most. The audience was so quiet during Evaporated, the air conditioning unit could be heard. It immediately brought me back to the time in my life when I first discovered that song. The soulful string parts, mixed with a french horn solo were absolutely delightful. I have never heard that song performed live before and it is a moment I won’t soon forget. The introspective song was quickly followed by a fan favorite, Not the Same. Folds grabbed his microphone and sat on the top of the upright piano. He instructed the audience on the harmony parts of the song, turning the entire theater into his instrument. It’s something he does almost every show, but it’s just a fun way to engage with the crowd. Folds stepped to the front of the stage to conduct, waving his arms with a huge smile. The members of yMusic watched in amusement with their instruments at rest. It’s the perfect way to end a show and left the audience smiling as they filed out of the theater with the house music playing Pomp and Circumstance.
Beautiful Mechanical (yMusic)
Long Way to Go
Not a Fan
I’m Not the Man
Rock This Bitch
Phone in a Pool
Music in Circles (yMusic)
Capable of Anything
Steven’s Last Night in Town
You Don’t Know Me
Not the Same