Ben Folds with the ESO

Ben Folds made his very first visit to Effington Edmonton this week.  He joined forces with the formidable Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to bring an orchestral treatment to his whip-smart musicality.  Your faithful correspondent was lucky enough to have a seat in the right-side loges of the beautiful Winspear Centre for the gig.

All too often in rock and pop music, symphonic elements are used as mere window dressing, extensions of the songwriter’s out-of-control ego.  The next time you hear some swooping strings tucked behind nine minutes of squalling guitars and distorted bass, you can safely assume that the rock star’s core message is “I enjoy the drug cocaine”.

Ben Folds tries his best not to subscribe to this cliché.  Over the years he has developed detailed charts for most of his songs, and he has learned how to collaborate with symphonies for maximum effect.  This much was obvious at the Winspear gig.  Folds’ grand piano was centre stage and audible (but not overly prominent) in the mix, which gave the ESO the sonic room to bring out new melodic and rhythmic nuances in the songs.

On the breezy first number of the night, “Zak and Sara”, the ensemble hit the ground running.  A small choir of local musicians provided dramatic counterpoint vocals to “The Ascent of Stan”.  The orchestra even got a chance to swing on “Jesusland”.  This brought a fun new element to the song that was not evident on the album version.

For “Picture Window”, co-written by Folds and author Nick Hornby, the violas plucked out notes that underscored the bass line of the song.  The horn section flexed their muscles on a stomping version of “One Angry Dwarf”.  Xylophone added a twinkle of ear candy to “Narcolepsy”, while the orchestra’s drummer and Folds locked into a percussive duel on “Steven’s Last Night In Town”.  Likewise, the whole ESO brought a cool syncopated groove to “Not The Same” while the star of the show stepped away from his piano throne to direct the audience’s three-part harmonies.

The highlight for many was likely the way Folds and the ESO improvised yet another version of “Rock This Bitch” on the spot.  One by one, Folds gave the different sections of the orchestra some basic melodic cues, quickly building a new song from scratch.  The eventual arrival of mariachi horns and timpani gave the song a spaghetti-western feel, then Folds brought the tune home with a short lyric and a final symphonic flourish.  The fact that dozens of people could play together seamlessly on a brand-new piece of music with minimal direction was testament to the skill and musicianship on stage.  One gets the sense that Ben Folds was having a (no so quiet) riot behind the ivories.

Folds mentioned that the Ben Folds Five are back together, and the band is trying to put the finishing touches on a new album.  It sounds like if they can complete the recording in June, we might see the results in stores and iTunes by sometime this fall.  Let’s hope that when the BF5 develop plans for a tour, their pianist puts in a good word for his new friends in Edmonton.

Setlist for Ben Folds w/ the ESO, 29-Mar-2012:

  • Zak & Sara
  • Smoke
  • The Ascent of Stan
  • Effington
  • Jesusland
  • Picture Window
  • One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces

Intermission

  • Landed
  • Gracie
  • Not The Same
  • Rock This Bitch (impromptu)
  • Brick
  • Cologne
  • Steven’s Last Night In Town
  • Narcolepsy
Encore:
  • The Luckiest
Ben Folds solo:
  • In The Air Tonight (quick drum solo)
  • Army
  • Annie Waits
  • The Last Polka
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