Live Review: Ben Folds @ Whitney Hall, Louisville KY (1/31)

Photo by Alton Strupp.

Photo by Alton Strupp.

I have to begin by saying that I’m not a person who was previously experienced with orchestra performances. In fact, I was only moderately familiar with Ben Folds’ work. But I enjoyed it and knew his reputation for being a great live performer.

There are understatements, and then there is that.

But this was not an average Folds performance, if there ever is such a thing. This was done with the support of The Louisville Orchestra, and was the final Ben Folds performance of this kind for the foreseeable future. The orchestra assisted shows have been done for years, and Folds took a moment of the show to explain their importance.

“There are big cities that have symphony orchestras and ones that don’t,” said Folds. “And the ones that don’t are crap.”

The symphony orchestra is not given the amount of attention it deserves, and Folds uses his fans interest as a way to introduce them to it. I happened to fall into that unacquainted group of people and was, as I’m sure we all were, mesmerized.

It’s truly incredible what the orchestra did, lighting a fire underneath Folds’ work. This is not a knock on his studio work, but it’s special because it taught you how spectacular the differences can be in their unique way.

‘Unique’ is an essential word for describing the show. Nothing about it was a run through the motions. Every single performance had a spectacular origin story that Folds would share with an incomparable friendliness, or an element that made the performance unique to that show in Louisville that night.

One song was written with collaborator Nick Hornby, for example, and it received an underwhelming applause when performed in the friend’s hometown. Folds made a point to share this with the crowd, only leading to an enormous applause. There is no doubt that Folds’ friend will be pleased to hear about Louisville’s reaction to their work.

Folds’ approach to songwriting is truly special, as well. He shared another story from a tour in Germany where he had taken too much codeine, which began to affect his performance. Folds struggled to make it through his show, and at one point started improvising a song about the infamous diapered astronaut who attempted to kidnap a U.S. Air Force Captain. His creativity and ability to improvise at will is unmatched. To this day, he still plays the song. Never would have thought I’d play that with The Louisville Orchestra, he said.

Another great moment came in the form of the third movement of the concerto Folds is currently writing, in addition to a normal album being started and completed next week. Despite having a ‘bum foot’, Folds stood and was physically in tune with the performance. The orchestra swayed and responded to Folds’ piano walking, playing back and forth like a great tennis match.

Then, “Rock this bitch!” Once it started, it was contagious. The Folds faithful in attendance began the call intently once it was requested. Folds took a moment to explain to The Louisville Orchestra that Rock This Bitch is a request that commonly is shouted at his shows, dating back to a tour years ago. Also, that all 100+ of them onstage would now be improvising a song together.

“‘Rock This Bitch? I don’t know that one.’” recalled Folds.

Folds recalled the humorous call, and how he asked the man for a subject. They made a song right then. It has become a tradition at shows ever since. In this version of Rock This Bitch, the man was asked if he had experienced a break up in the past ten years. He had, and when asked why, the man explained that they had fought over her need to buy an expensive house. It was decided he would write a song about “broke ass guy and his girl problems.”

Folds requested that management find any kind of poem about the subject online, print it off and bring it to him later in the show for an improvised performance. Sure enough, a couple songs later, a poem had arrived and Rock This Bitch began. The process, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is breathtaking.

Folds begins with a simple but effective piano groove that he considers “moody enough, right?” Next, without preparation, the Orchestra is asked to hit all these notes upon Folds request. Each section of the Orchestra are given ideas about how they could play their part of the song. Some are encouraged to come in when they feel necessary. These are not orders, but rather a series of bouncing ideas off one another. If things didn’t sound right, Folds would decide to steer the Orchestra in a different direction until things fell into line.

The crowd was enamored, cheering wildly as the Orchestra found sweet spots that sounded just right. In merely fifteen minutes time, a layered and beautiful song is constructed from start to finish. Not to mention, with lyrics sang to an improvised melody as the Orchestra performs a newly written song. This was one of the single most incredible things I’ve seen in my life, and it immediately received a booming standing ovation.

If that seems impressive, take time to consider that Ben Folds and The Louisville Orchestra performed together just once hours before the show. The level of skill from everyone involved was beyond anything I have ever seen. Folds’ personality and song writing may have been the driving force of the night, but The Louisville Orchestra was equally present. Folds may have been the leader, but he was merely a General leading an army. The things they achieved together were truly phenomenal.

The audience was not allowed to sit in awe for long. During the next performance, Folds shared another story of how he had written a song centered around William Shatner with a video featuring Weezer and Bill Clinton playing a saxophone solo (both of which actually happened.) However, Folds’ choir had to back out due to schedule constraints because, as with most Folds projects, it was done on the fly. A past audience from Louisville was instead recorded as the choir and can be heard on the record.

Folds decided that it was time to work with the crowd once again.

Like The Louisville Orchestra, the audience worked with Folds to take request and build a melody that put everyone into the performance. After coaching everyone up, Folds returned to his piano to perform with the Orchestra and audience’s support. By the end, Folds had returned to the front of the stage and served as maestro for the crowd, waving his hands up, down, and calling for quick stops from his audience choir.

These interactions made the amazing performance so special. Folds’ ability to involve those around him and create one of a kind moments exceeds anything like it I’ve seen in the past. You left feeling like you truly were a part of the performance that night.

You have to recall my first statement: I was not someone familiar with Orchestra performances. But Folds did exactly what he set out to do. Saturday night’s performance changed how I see concerts, and it will never be the same. It made me like a baby, as if I was discovering everything again for the first time. Folds’ presence with The Louisville Orchestra was something like Santa Claus, reestablishing a value in spectacle wonders. The difference was that they were real. This performance moved me in a way that no show ever has before. I left not feeling like passions had been found after being lost, but rather warmly introduced.

This show taught me that no matter how much you think you have things figured out, this world is immense and there is always inspiration left to be found. I think that Folds would be happy to know that he convinced one non-believer that the Orchestra’s power is unlimited. Everyone in the building was a part of something truly special.

If you were in attendance, and you’re reading this? I’m proud of you. If you had any role in producing this show, and you’re reading this? I’m proud of you. If you’re a member of The Louisville Orchestra, and you’re reading this? I’m proud of you. And if you’re Ben Folds, and you’re reading this? I’m amazed you’ve found this, and I’m proud of you.

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