Ben Folds featuring The yMusic Ensemble - Live in Denver (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Ben Folds featuring The yMusic Ensemble

Live in Denver (2016)

live show

I hadn’t quite gotten the memo that somehow Ben Folds had become easy listening. I still remember an era where you could get a Ben Folds Five t-shirt with a picture of a piano keyboard on it, with a middle finger pressing down on middle C. Recently, I tried to find that t-shirt again online, and it is nowhere to be found. When I was growing up, Ben Folds Five felt like a statement that you could still create hard rocking music with a little attitude while playing the piano.

So, when my friend told me at the last minute that she had an extra ticket to see Ben Folds at the Paramount Theater in Denver, I was more than happy to go, but was a bit surprised to find this 90’s alt-rocker in such a stuffy, sit-down venue. I can’t remember the last time I went to a music concert where everyone sits down, but I’m pretty sure it was for a high school field trip, which would place it at least 14 years ago. I had been to the Paramount Theater once before, but for a stand-up comedy show, taking my ex-girlfriend to see Kathleen Madigan for her birthday.

The opening act was Dotan, a Dutch indie-folk singer-songwriter whose performance looked like something you’d find on PBS at about 2 AM, or being introduced as the musical guest for A Prairie Home Companion. This was a fitting introduction for what Ben Folds brought to the stage. His new album, So There, was apparently, unbeknownst to me, a collaboration with the yMusic Ensemble, a chamber pop orchestra from New York City that straddles the line between classical and jazz. Folds’s show was beautiful if you’re open to expanding your horizons to something beyond rock, because the new songs sounded crisp, clean, and bouncing with energy, as the yMusic Ensemble showed off truly impressive skills.

One of the highlights of the show was a tradition I didn’t know about wherein, ever since it happened on his 2002 live album, every time someone in the audience at a Ben Folds concert shouts out “Rock this bitch!,” Folds has to put together an improvised song on the spot. As this was being broadcast for Chinese television by cameras on side stage, Folds turned into a composer, issuing instructions for a “new wave beat” on the drums and a few “punk rock eighth notes” on the cello, as he very slowly constructed a fun but complex little ditty called “Hello China.

But after a good while of playing almost nothing but new material, with pretty much the only exception being a performance of “Jesusland” where Folds lost his place and had to be redirected by members of yMusic, it started to look like the Ben Folds of my youth was entirely gone. Then Folds announced that they were going to launch into something that they start differently every night they do it, so this night, they were going to start with the viola, and see where it went from there. The musicians all launched into a complex classical breakdown, until Folds emerged with his piano playing and the slow reveal of the familiar lyrics of “So…you…wanted…to take…a…break!” as the band launched into a jazzy/classical version of the Ben Folds Five classic, “Song for the Dumped.” A song that was originally designed as a piano-driven alternative rock anger-anthem worked surprisingly well when jazzed up by yMusic, and substituting classical string instruments for the song’s electric guitar solo showed a refreshing sense of humor on the part of yMusic.

But if “Song for the Dumped” translated well into yMusic’s NPR-friendly chamber pop stylings, “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” possibly Ben Folds Five’s most jazzy tune, was just tailor made for a show like this. yMusic ripped into one hell of an improv session mid-song that capped off with—and I can’t believe I’m writing this on PunkNews—a truly epic clarinet solo. The encore finished off this brilliant performance with yMusic accompanying Folds on Ben Folds Five’s “Evaporated;” a rendition of “You Don’t Know Me” with yMusic’s flutist and vocalist, Alex Sopp, filling in on Regina Spektor’s vocal part; and finally the song “Not the Same” from Folds’s September 11, 2001 released album (I’m not kidding, look it up) Rockin’ the Suburbs, during which Folds climbed up onto his own piano and then moved out towards the audience with a microphone, leaving yMusic to play the song as he joyfully sang us out.

Ben Folds’s most recent project seems to be designed to show us that he can do more than just rock out. He barely needs to remind us of this. Ben Folds is always looking to branch out into other experiments and, while some of them work better than others, his attempts to show himself as a more traditionally skilled musician and not just a rock star are definitely working better than all of the times that he insisted, for God knows what reason, on trying to make music with William Shatner. Still, the old middle-finger-on-middle-C version of Ben Folds hasn’t gone away entirely. Besides the fact that he’s as foul mouthed as ever with his between song banter, he shows us that he can still lead a band composed of a viola, a cello, and a flutist all whilst singing a song with the chorus “Give me my money back you bitch!” And if that’s not rock ‘n’ roll as fuck, then I don’t know what is.