Show Review: Ben Folds with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, June 21, 2017

by Becka Robbins on July 23, 2017

“Rock this bitch!” Ben Folds had just finished his second song in the set after the intermission, when an audience member screamed out from the balcony, “Already?  We just started!” Ben Folds turned around to face his backing band for the evening, the venerable San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and said, “I should probably explain this.” In Chicago, years ago, at a live show, a fan screamed this out and Ben Folds wrote a song on the spot. Now, “Rock This Bitch” is a Folds tradition. He plunked out a concept, muttering something about jazz to himself, and then gave each section of the orchestra a different assigned part. With about three minutes of preparation, Folds had a melody composed, and assigned parts to sections of the orchestra. The cellos, violas, violins, bassoons, and percussionists all had their own parts to play, over which Folds improvised a jazz melody and lyrics that were part pontifications about rocking this bitch, part lyrics to the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, all backed by a world class orchestra.

This kind of magic is what draws fans to Ben Folds. He’s a beast on the keys, and this is special, and he’s put out some damned fine songs, but what sets him far apart is the combination of his musical agility across genres and his sense of fun. His set with the symphony started with a concerto he’d written; I don’t  have the academic knowledge to describe classical music at all, except to say it was dramatic and modern sounding, and vibrant and intense, beautifully executed and complex.

At one point Ben Folds gave a quirky speech he’d written, championing the importance of the NEA, and imploring us all to get on the phone “like there’s no tomorrow” and call our reps to ensure it keeps its budget.“There are two kinds of cities in the world,” he told us, “those with symphony orchestras, and those which are crap.”  He told us to get to the symphony for a date night, because it would get us laid, and to bring our friends, and that the symphony is the greatest achievement of civilization: people coming together to make something bigger than the individual. He got excited as he envisioned people lining up for symphony tickets the night before, and camping outside to make sure they got in.  It could maybe be construed as a little earnest and hokey, and on brand for Ben Folds.

In addition to his classical compositions, spontaneous songwriting, and bipartisan punditing, perhaps you know that Ben Folds has also written many popular rock songs, for which he’s most famous, several of which turn tropes onto their heads. “The Luckiest” is a heartfelt love song that departs from the traditionally mellifluous tropes, and in great meta fashion, he acknowledges this in the lyrics. His voice is a bit nasally, but that’s nitpicking, given the breadth and depth of his musical abilities. His lyrics are wry and funny, and sensitive and relatable, and he has a warm outsider sensibility that says, “Hey, like, this is cool, but life is pretty weird.” He seems like a really smart stoner, and comes through as an awkward, charismatic person with a lot of heart and warmth, which is a welcome spot in this era of irony. When he played “You Don’t Know Me,” he asked some of the audience do some of the backup vocals. During one song, he conducted the audience in a three part harmony, waving his arms around to conduct the audience, while behind him, the conductor waved his arms around to conduct the orchestra, bringing the entire audience into the experience of making music.  

Ben Folds is a dynamic artist with a sense of humor and tremendous talent, and while his records are excellent articles of pop, they don’t do justice to his artistry and musicality. It was a pleasure to see him in this context, and, also: he’s right about the symphony – there’s a very good chance that you, reader, like me, have not spent enough time basking in musical greatness. This was a beautiful show, and I hope Ben Folds continues to bridge the gap between widely divergent genres with this much joy and skill for many years to come.

Setlist:

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movement 1

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movement 2

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movement 3

Capable of Anything

Zak and Sara

Rock this Bitch Improv

So There

Landed

You Don’t Know Me

Not the Same

Brick

Steven’s Last Night in Town

Encore:

The Luckiest

Theme From Dr. Pyser

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