Ben Folds was a virtuoso, comedian and educator in one when he came to Melbourne

Ben Folds was a virtuoso, comedian and educator in one when he came to Melbourne

1 / 3
Words By August Billy
Pics by Bandanna Photography

We went along to Ben Folds’ Melbourne show on Monday and this is what went down.

It’s funny how familiar the prospect of seeing Ben Folds perform with a symphony orchestra has become. This is the guy from North Carolina who grew up “on sugar cereal and TV” and rose to fame playing a frequently tongue-in-cheek brand of alternative rock that he called “punk rock for sissies”. But over the last decade and a half, Folds has taken to aligning himself with orchestras.

Not only did Folds’ 2015 album, So There, include a three-part ‘Concerto For Piano and Orchestra’ recorded with the Nashville Symphony, but since 2017 he’s been artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. In fact, his affiliation with orchestras goes all the way back to 2005 when he united with the WASO for two performances in Perth’s Kings Park.

Folds has since established a relationship with orchestras all over the globe, including our own MSO. Crucially, however, this sold out show at Melbourne’s Plenary Theatre revealed that, although Folds is enmeshed in orchestraville, he still has time to ponder whether Effington, Minnesota is a “a wonderful effing place”, where people are effing in their cars and in their yards.

The fact he opened the show with this song (‘Effington’ from 2008’s Way to Normal) made it clear that the magnificence of the occasion wouldn’t preclude Folds’ trademark silliness. Yes, the setlist tended towards the more circumspect end of his solo catalogue, with just a couple of tracks recalling his days fronting the Ben Folds Five. But as MC and band leader – “the only diva on stage”, as he put it – Folds was in ecstatic and jocular form.

He took time between songs to brief us on the story behind many gems from his solo catalogue. The idea behind the heartfelt ‘Still Fighting It’ came to him when watching his son be born. “Being born sucks,” he said, admitting he felt bad for putting his son through such an ordeal. A few years later, Folds wrote a song for his son’s twin sister, Gracie – though apparently only because she called him up in the studio and insisted it be done.

Many other keenly-described characters populated the setlist, including the neurodivergent Sara from ‘Zak and Sara’ and the recently-dismissed newspaperman, Fred Jones. The latter, we learned, was someone Folds encountered in the obituaries of a Nashville newspaper, though he took considerable liberties in filling in the gaps of Mr. Jones’ life story.

The MSO, under the gifted hands of conductor in residence Ben Northey, were in immaculate form. Towards the end of the show, Folds moved his microphone from the piano to centre stage in order to deliver a heartfelt speech on the importance of orchestras. “Orchestras are known to get you laid,” he said, while also describing them as emblematic of a functioning civilisation.

While there was to be no hugging of strangers on this occasion, the performance was a more than persuasive complement to Folds’ argument. Though quieter than your regular rock show, the MSO’s unmatched dynamic range made sure this was a no less riveting experience.

The encore brought us ‘Rock This Bitch’, a game of on-the-spot songwriting that’s featured in just about every Folds live show since 2002. It was fascinating to watch as he conceived parts for French horn, cello, viola, double bass, violin, trombone, triangle and harp on the fly. More gobsmacking, perhaps, was the MSO’s ability to take it all in their stride.

We came here for excellence, familiar songs and good humour, all of which was delivered in bucketloads.

Never miss a story. Sign up to Beat’s newsletter and you’ll be served fresh music, arts, food and culture stories three times a week.