There was a moment during “Steven’s Last Night in Town” when Ben Folds, letting the San Francisco Symphony do its thing, turned toward the audience, put his hands on his knees and flashed a huge smile. It was the happiest I’ve ever seen him, and who can blame him? Here he was, on stage with a world class orchestra, hearing them play the horn breakdown of a humorous song he wrote during a time when he was just another struggling Nashville musician. Now he’s on top of the musical world, playing songs that belong in the Great American Songbook with 100 great musicians and singers. I’d smile, too. And I did.
Ben Folds has been doing these concerts with symphony orchestras for many years now, beginning nearly 10 years ago with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, in a series of performances that’s been released on DVD. He’s continued doing this with symphonies for the years since, and this is the first time he’s treated San Francisco with this performance. This time would be particularly special, as he was also bringing along excerpts from his just recorded Concerto For Piano and Orchestra, which most in attendance would be hearing for the first time.
The performance started like most orchestra performances start, with the concertmaster coming out to tune up the orchestra. Then Ben Folds and our conductor for the evening, Donato Cabrera, came out. And then the show started with a choir I hadn’t noticed yet singing the opening lines to “Effington.” I think this song was chosen to begin the show so that we’d be a little surprised by the opening, and set the tone for the evening, which was full of little musical pleasures.
For the most part, the songs of Ben Folds work very well with an orchestra — his more plaintive songs like “Smoke, “Landed” and “Cologne” sounded like they always needed an orchestra. “Steven’s Last Night in Town” was as rousing as it’s ever been. “Narcolepsy,” unsurprisingly, was completely perfect. Other songs didn’t get much added to them: “Luckiest” and “Brick” are both beautiful songs, but the symphony makes them sounds more syrupy than they actually are. “Annie Waits” and “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” were my choices for most disappointing arrangements, as they both came across a little too busy for my taste.
Being disappointed by an arrangement is pretty relative, though, as the entire show was absolutely fantastic, start to finish. Folds stopped in between songs to tell stories and talk about his songs, as he’s always done. He explained the drug induced origins of the song “Cologne,” the history of Steven from “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” and recommended that we all see the movie About Time, a recommendation I can definitely get behind. He also took the time to tell everyone in the audience why the symphony is important, and that we all should come to the symphony when they’re not doing the symphonic equivalent of “wet t-shirt night” by inviting rock stars to play along with them. Finally, and most joyously, we got some of the crowd participation that Ben Folds shows have had in recent years, singing the harmony for “Not the Same” and being a brass section for “Army,” which he played solo as part of a two-song encore.
So, because lists are a thing music nerds like to do, I will now rank the versions of Ben Folds that I’ve seen live:
1. Ben Folds Five (1996-2000)
2. Ben Folds with Orchestra
3. Ben Folds solo piano
4. Ben Folds Five (2013)
5. Ben Folds trio
6. Ben Folds large solo band
So unless you’re gifted with the ability to time travel, like the stars of the movie About Time, which Ben and I both recommended, you should definitely find Ben Folds playing with a symphony near you. And if you can’t find him near you, and you’re a fan, take a trip to do it. I waited 9 years to see this, and I wouldn’t want to wait another 9 to see it again.
The San Francisco Symphony does a fantastic job of programming both classical concerts and wet t-shirt nights, so I invite you to check out both of them. For one of each in the upcoming weeks, I recommend Charles Dutoit conducting Faure’s Requiem and Fantasia (the Disney films) live in concert.